April 01, 2013
Credit: BAE Systems
It might be just a dark rock that no one has ever noticed, let alone put on a map. But it can tell a passing aircraft where it is.
How? Because the aircraft has worked out its position relative to the rock and the rock's position relative to a patch of bright green grass that it spotted previously. The aircraft already knew where the grass was relative to a tree farther back, and the position of the tree relative to a parked car that is now out of sight. These mundane objects are not on a map loaded into the aircraft; rather, the aircraft is making a map with them as it flies along, and at the same time working out where it is on that map.
This is simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), a navigation technology widely under development for ground robotics and also being worked on by various research teams for aircraft, especially pilotless aircraft. For military purposes, its chief attraction is that it offers a passive method of fixing a vehicle's position without satellite navigation signals, which an adversary may try to jam or spoof. It is, therefore, applicable to manned aircraft, too.
SLAM is part of what BAE Systems believes to be a world-leading navigation, guidance and control system it is developing in Australia. Since the same Australian unit is working on navigation and guidance for the BAE Systems Taranis, there is strong reason to suspect that the advanced autonomous capabilities, or at least most of them, are used in that aircraft, a demonstrator for a stealth combat drone. BAE and its customer for the Taranis, the British Ministry of Defense, have revealed few details of the aircraft. The U.S. Navy is also looking at BAE's system as a way of achieving what must be one of its ideals: automated carrier landing without emissions.
Whether or not BAE's guidance and navigation is the most advanced under development—and there is no shortage of research teams working on such systems—its description of its system at least gives insight into the autonomy that can be expected from pilotless aircraft in a decade or so.
Work on it began in 2003 and is now 80% complete, assuming that the requirement does not change, says Brad Yelland, head of strategy for the aerospace business of BAE Systems Australia. The Australian and British parts of the company have funded the system, which is being flight-tested on a BAE Systems Kingfisher drone. Yelland declines to comment on Taranis work or even say whether it is related.
The advanced features that BAE describes are in navigation (that is, the part of the system that works out where the aircraft is) and guidance (determining where it should go). The separate mission management element works with the guidance section in autonomously determining how to execute the assigned tasks, which could be reconnaissance of various points, or launching weapons.