Tag Archives: X-47B

Video Game AI and the Future UCAV Top Gun

My brother in flight school should be glad we played so much Ace Combat 4.

Alright, Roomba, now start sweeping for enemy units.

A Roomba is useful because it can sweep up regular messes without constant intervention, not because it can exit and enter its docking station independently. Although the Navy’s new X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) has, by landing on a carrier, executed an astounding feat even for humans, this ability only means our weapons have matured past their typical one-way trips. The real challenge will be getting a UCAV to defend units while sweeping up the enemy without remote guidance (i.e. autonomously). The answer is as close as the games running on your Xbox console.

 

 

Player One: Insert Coin

ace-combat-5-the-unsung-war-20041024114416859

Simulated fighters are UCAVs having an out-of body experience.

Considering the challenge of how an air-to-air UCAV might be programmed, recall that multiple generations of America’s youth have already fought untold legions of advanced UCAV’s. Developers have created artificial “intelligences” designed to combat a human opponent in operational and tactical scenarios with imperfect information; video games have paved the way for unmanned tactical computers.

A loose application of video game intelligence (VGI) would work because VGI is designed to operate in the constrained informational environment in which a real-life UCAV platform would operate. Good (i.e. fun) video game AI exists in the same fog of war constraints as their human opponents; the same radar, visual queues, and alerts are provided to the computer and human players. The tools to lift that veil for computer and human are the same. Often, difficulty levels in video games are not just based on the durability and damage of an enemy, but on the governors installed by programmers on a VGI to make competition fair with a human opponent. This is especially evident in Real Time Strategy (RTS), where the light-speed all-encompassing force management and resource calculations of a VGI can more often than not overwhelm the subtler, but slower, finesse of the human mind within the confines of the game. Those who wonder when humans will go to war using autonomous computers fail to see the virtual test-bed in which we already have, billions of times.

This Ain’t Galaga

No extra lives, and forget about memorizing the level's flight patterns.

No extra lives, and forget about memorizing the level’s flight patterns.

Those uninitiated must understand how VGI has progressed by leaps and bounds from the pre-programmed paths of games such as the early 1980′s arcade shooter Galaga; computer opponents hunt, take cover, maneuver evasively, and change tactics based on opportunities or a sudden states of peril. The 2000′s Half-Life and HALO game series were especially lauded for their revolutions in AI – creating opponents that seemed rational, adapting to a player’s tactics. For the particular case of UCAV air-to-air engagements, since the number of flight combat simulators is innumerable, from Fighter Pilot on the Commodore 64 in 1984 to the Ace Combat series. Computers have been executing pursuit curves, displacement rolls, and defensive spirals against their human opponents since before I was born.

However, despite its utility, VGI is still augmented with many “illusions” of intelligence, mere pre-planned responses (PPR); the real prize is a true problem-solving VGI to drive a UCAV. That requires special programming and far more processing power. In a real UCAV, these VGI would be installed into a suite far more advanced than a single Pentium i7 or an Xbox. To initiate a learning and adapting problem-solving tactical computer, the DARPA SyNAPSE program offers new possibilities, especially when short-term analog reasoning is coordinated with messier evolutionary algorithms. Eventually, as different programs learn and succeed, they can be downloaded and replace the lesser adaptations on other UCAVs.

I’ve Got the Need, The Need For Speed

Unlike Maverick, drones will never have to go through motorcycle safety training.

Unlike Maverick, drones will never have to go through motorcycle safety training.

When pilots assert that they are more intuitive than computer programs, they are right; this is, however, like saying the amateur huntsman with an AR-15 is lesser trained than an Austrian Arabesquer. The advantage is not in the quality of tactical thought, but in the problem solving rate-of-fire and speed of physical action. A VGI executing air-to-air tactics in a UCAV can execute the OODA loop encompassing the whole of inputs much faster than the human mind, where humans may be faster or more intuitive in solving particular, focused problems due to creativity and intuition. Even with the new advanced HUD system in their helmets, a human being cannot integrate input from all sensors at an instant in time (let alone control other drones). Human pilots are also limited in their physical ability to maneuver. G-suits exist because our 4th and 5th generation fighters have abilities far in excess of what the human body is capable. This artificially lowers aircraft tactical performance to prevent the death or severe damage of the pilot inside.

Pinball Wizard: I Can’t See!

VGI doesn’t have a problem with the how, it’s the who that will be the greatest challenge when the lessons of VGI are integrated into a UCAV. In a video-game, the VGI is blessed with instant recognition; its enemy is automatically identified when units are revealed, their typology is provided instantly to both human and VGI. A UCAV unable to differentiate between different radar contacts or identify units via its sensors is at a disadvantage to its human comrades or enemies. Humans still dominate the field of integrating immediate quality analysis with ISR within the skull’s OODA loop. Even during the landing sequence, the UCAV cheated in a way by being fed certain amounts of positional data from the carrier.

We’ve passed the tutorial level of unmanned warfare; we’ve created the unmanned platforms capable of navigating the skies and a vast array of programs designed to drive tactical problems against human opponents. Before we pat ourselves on the back, we need to effectively integrate those capabilities into an independent platform.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, although he wishes they did.

X-47B Sea Trials – A BFD

X-47

                                                                           Taking flight

 

My twitter feed was abuzz today with statements lauding this morning’s launch of the U.S. Navy’s X-47B unmanned carrier air system from USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77):

“…another great first for naval aviation…History has just been made…Momento histórico…History has just been made…the Next Era of Naval Aviation…Launch Catapults Naval Aviation into the Future…New era in warfare…MOMENTOUS…Watershed…a pivotal milestone in naval aviation…game-changing technology,” etc.

There is a bit of truth in all of these.  Though perhaps the event is best summarized in the words of Vice President Biden.

 

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

Is the stealth worth it?

Sea Ghost Enters the Fray

Is the stealth worth it?

On Friday Lockheed Martin announced its entrant, the Sea Ghost, in the hunt for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) contract. On Sunday, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, winner of the contract to demonstrate the feasibility of a carrier-based drone “launched from Pax River and flew for a planned 35 minutes. The aircraft reached an altitude of 7,500 feet and an air speed of 180 knots during its flight over the Chesapeake Bay before successfully landing back at Pax River.” The X-47B is testing operations in a land-based simulated carrier environment. Next year it will start carrier-based testing, followed by a demonstration of autonomous aerial refueling in 2014. The Navy expects whatever frame wins the UCLASS prize to enter the fleet in 2018. I’d like to take the moment to share a few unsolicited thoughts on the battle for the U.S. Navy’s carrier drone contract. With LM’s revelation, the field of contenders has most likely solidified into four, backed by well-known names:

  1. Lockheed Martin’s Sea Ghost
  2. Boeing’s X-45C Phantom Ray (or some follow-on design)
  3. General Atomics’ Sea Avenger
  4. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Pegasus

Wired’s Danger Room has a good review of the contestants, and one similarity is worth noting. All but the Sea Avenger are of the “flying wing” variety, similar to the USAF’s B-2. This design confers some advantageous stealth properties through a reduced radar cross section, but comes at some cost of stability and handling. Instead, the Sea Avenger is essentially a souped-up version of General Atomic’s famous Predator drone.

 

While Navy has yet to release the contract’s request for proposal (RFP), detailing the requirements and criteria by which the contenders will be judged, the NAVAIR website states the Navy is looking for an, “aircraft system providing persistent Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities.” This closely matches the capabilities highlighted by the aforementioned companies’ websites.

 

Demonstrating the future of carrier aviation, but can it be done cheap enough?

With this, and with the shrinking range of carrier-based strike aircraft in general, in mind, the most attractive attributes will be stealth, range, mid-flight refueling (to further extend range), ISR capabilities, and the ability to carry stand-off weapons. By eliminating the weight and crew limitations of a strike aircraft, a UAV can greatly increase its range. But this does not eliminate the costs of crews, it merely shifts the crews’ location, tentatively increasing their safety and reducing some training and replacement costs. In fact, with extended ranges and increased ISR collection, each airframe may require more pilots and analysts than traditional manned craft.

 

The current state of UAV technology will allow the military to demand many automated functions in the UCLASS including carrier landings, following flight plans, and executing pre-approved weapon strikes. Unlike drones like the predator, the UCLASS is expected to be able to follow flight plans, essentially executing its mission devoid of human input unless an emergency or unexpected situation arises, in a way similar to how tomahawks or other missiles execute their strike packages. Technology has its limitations however. UAVs are not yet designed to perform intercept missions, or air-to-air combat. They can conceivably be programmed to use counter-measures such as executing limited defensive maneuvering or deploying chaff in the event of a certain input, such as detecting an inbound enemy missile. Yet because the UCLASS won’t be shooting its way through high-threat environments, it will have to rely on either escorts (limited by their range), the distance of its stand-off weapons, or stealth.

 

As pointed out at Information Dissemination by Rep. Randy Forbes, stealth can be quite expensive, and may have diminishing returns. The CNO also singled out the pursuit of stealth perfection as the potentially errant end of the cost-curve in an article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, “Payloads over Platforms,” widely (mis)perceived to be a critique of the F-35. In the context of the carrier battle, the single most important determinant beyond technological maturity may rightly be cost. To steal a common refrain from the debate over shipbuilding, quantity matters. Determining whether the ability to carry out deep penetration strikes far into an enemy’s territory will be better served by larger numbers of less-stealthy drones or a smaller number of super-stealthy drones will be an interesting exercise in analysis. That is until the drones are cleared for air-to-air combat, which could either be accomplished by human pilots taking temporary direct control, or eventually by programming the UAVs to fight themselves. Some final factors that will drive navies towards endowing their carrier drones more complete autonomy (see the writings of Adam Elkus for more on the ethical discussions surrounding such a move) are the vulnerabilities that satellite-based comms links with the UAVs will introduce, and the difficulty of maintaining and securing those links.

 

While the players for the first big U.S. Navy UAV contract may be familiar, there is room for innovative new companies to capitalize on emerging technologies like 3D printing to cheaply create UAVs tailor-made to the requirements of the Navy. Without the risk of human casualties, being willing to accept the loss of a few less-costly drones for an overall increased strike capacity is a trade-off worth exploring.

 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

 

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

In foreign waters. Will recapitalization retain this capability?

Weekend Reading: June 15th

In foreign waters. Will recapitalization retain this capability?

Here are a few stories to catch up on to impress your maritime security minded father (for those in the U.S.) when you dutifully call for father’s day:

Future Tech

Spencer Ackerman has a good piece at Wired’s Danger Room on the energy generation hurdles U.S. Navy’ ships must overcome if they want to enjoy the fruits of their successful directed energy weapons testing.

Maryland Invaded By Naval Drones

The DC region was invaded by naval demonstration drones with varying degrees of impact. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator), the drone designed to launch from carriers and begin the replacement of manned fighter jets, made its way cross-country to Naval Air Station Pax River in Maryland after successfully completing its first major phase of testing. En route it rounded DC’s beltway and, as in other places it was seen by the public, it sparked some humorous befuddlement.

Earlier in the week another U.S. Navy drone demonstrator at Pax River made a more literal impact into Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This was an RQ-4A BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator), a modified version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk, and one of only two of the “A” variants. As the linked AOL Defense article points out, Northrop Grumman has continued to make major improvements with the more advanced “B” and “C” variants.

Force Structure

CGBlog has a good run down and analysis of the Coast Guard’s future shipbuilding plan, including the views of a just-released GAO report. If you’re not familiar with the debates, this a good chance to get caught up on the future of another service with a global impact on maritime security.

Strategic Outlook

Information Dissemination’s 5th Anniversary Virtual Conference rolls on with great posts by Dr. Andrew S. Erickson on the strategic context of China and the U.S.’ maritime interaction; Dean Robert C. Rubel on China’s claim to the mantle of Mahan, and whether or not it matters; a Senior Vice President at Maersk Line on the state of international maritime trade; and the response of former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, from the Obama campaign to the earlier Romney campaign post on the direction of the Navy.