Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Safe Robot Aircraft for Australian Aircraft Carrier?

Mark NicholsonDr Mark Nicholson from University of York was recently in Australia to teach Systems Safety Engineering. I bumped into him at the coffee shop and the next day he gave a presentation at the ACS Software Sig.

One interesting application Mark mentioned was safety analysis needed to allow UAVs (Robot Aircraft) to fly in the same airspace with piloted aircraft. The rules which are used to assess if an aircraft is safe to fly assume there is a pilot in it. So changes need to be made for when the pilot is actually sitting on the ground, flying the aircraft by remote control and, at least part of the time, a computer program is flying the aircraft.

Having a computer fly a plane might sound risky, but Mark pointed out that most modern aircraft are being flown by a computer most of the time now. Modern airliners, such as those from Airbus are controlled by a computer, with the pilots controls actually input devices to the computer, much like a computer game. Most of the time the computer is flying the aircraft with the pilot monitoring the systems.

Mark pointed out an even more demanding application is where military UAVs and piloted aircraft are taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier at sea. The relatively orderly process of air traffic control used at a civilian airport doesn't apply.

Tenix-Navantia Landing Helicopter Dock Ship Cross Section DiagramAustralia may be in need of Mark's skills for the Amphibious Ships Project. Defence plans to buy two large "Landing Helicopter Dock" ships to carry helicopters and landing craft. These will be large enough to also operate UAVs and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. But stopping the helicopters, fighters and robot aircraft from running into each other will need some carefully designed software.

Bell Eagle Eye, Model 918, is a tiltrotor unmanned aerial vehicleEven a relatively small UAV, such as the Bell Eagle Eye, Model 918 tiltrotor would pose a considerable risk to other aircraft operating from the ship. Armed UAVs would pose a further risk.

ps: The Landing Helicopter Dock ships are likely to be a Spanish design from the company "Navantia". The decision is years away, but recently the Defense Department is reported to have decided on Navantia's F100 destroyer. Having bought one ship from Navantia, it makes sense to buy another from the same company.

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