BETHESDA, Md. — The U.S. Navy is looking for a drone that can fly over a damaged airfield and come up with a plan to get planes back in the air quickly, the head of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command said Tuesday.
NECC wants an unmanned aerial system that can fly out over an airfield after an attack and work with artificial intelligence to help its people find the best way to fix it, Rear Adm. Brian Brakke told a session at the Global Explosive Ordnance Disposal Symposium & Exhibition.
“How can I use UAS to run the initial damage assessment across that airfield?” he asked, outlining his thinking. “Is there artificial intelligence, deep machine learning, that can run across that field, scan it, tell me what [unexploded] munitions I have left, what condition [the airfield] is in, how many craters I have, how can they be filled; then map me out a plan that my teams can look at and say: ‘OK, this is how we’re going to attack this problem and get that runway back up in an expedient fashion’?”
Experts say the technology for Brakke’s notional drone is partly available already — there are drones that can create high-fidelity maps of locations and send them back for analysis. But getting the drone to also come up with a plan of attack for repairing the damaged airfield is tricky.
“We’ve got commercial drones flying right now and taking volume measurements of stock piles,” said Michael Blades, an analyst with consulting and research firm Frost & Sullivan, who studies unmanned systems. “That kind of high-precision mapping and surveying is going on right now. You can get one hell of a three-dimensional map by flying over a few times.”
The issue, Blades said, is the analysis piece — telling the difference between a rock and an unexploded ordnance is still very much reliant on expert human eyes.
“To do that autonomously, to say, ‘The mine is here, here and here,’ that’s the leap,” he said.
Michael Horowitz, an unmanned systems expert at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that what’s out there now isn’t exactly what Brakke is looking for.
“Current technologies could give you a high-fidelity map after an attack,” he said. “The ability to use that data to generate a blueprint to repair that runway would be a new step.”
Developing the AI to help operators plan airfield recoveries could range from relatively simple to enormously difficult, Horowitz said.
An easier hurdle would be creating algorithm that had four preprogrammed damage scenarios and recovery plans, and based on what the drone is seeing it could then recommend the best course of action. But creating a detailed plan of action on the fly with data being collected in real time would be very difficult but not necessarily impossible.
Whatever technologies get delivered to NECC, Brakke said companies need to factor in maintenance and support needs.
“If I don’t have the folks to work on it, to understand it, to maintain it, I’m not creating a more effective force, I’m creating something that’s going to sit on a shelf that we’re not going to use,” he said. “We have to have a balance of that going forward.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.