Science Scope

Look ma, no hands: fighter jets without pilots test the air

Posting in Technology

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a plane... without a pilot?

This month, in the skies above the Irish Sea, some peculiar planes are flying. Planes without pilots.

The aircraft in question are fighter jets, and they're part of a series of tests to assess how good the current software is for flying planes without a human set of hands.

What sets these planes apart from drones - driverless devices that are already in use in Afghanistan and all over the world - is that these jets are following instruction from a program, not a person. Drones are driven by people on the ground; pilots are giving the drones instructions in real time. These jets would have their instructions pre-programmed in. The idea is that they could fly, by themselves and without any hand holding, for days at a time.

The company testing these pilotless planes is BAE Systems, one of the largest military contractors in the world. They're using conventional aircraft for these driverless tests - the plane flying over the Irish Sea is an 18-seat propeller plane. For the tests it will have technicians on board, just in case something goes wrong.

In the air, they're testing a whole bunch of things, including whether the plane can avoid running into something without a pilot.

If all this is kind of scary to you, the engineers already know it is. "Giving them any autonomy is going to be complicated in terms of technical developments, such as the software, and legally allowing a fighter without a human being in it to launch a weapon and kill someone," Edward Hunt, a senior consultant at a defense analysis firm told The Guardian. Nobody wants the robots deciding who lives and who dies.

Via: The Guardian

Image: Cobatfor, Wikimedia Commons

Share this

Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure