back to article Robot aircraft 'sense and avoid' gear in flight tests

US aerospace titan Northrop Grumman has commenced flight tests of new "sense and avoid" technology which could be fitted to existing and future unmanned aircraft - or indeed to the long-awaited flying cars - allowing them to fly routinely in civilian airspace. At present, planes which don't carry qualified pilots are subject to …


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  1. Secretgeek
    Black Helicopters

    Next step...

    ...'sense and classify'.


    'sense, classify and destroy.'

    I, for one, will welcome our airborne robotic overlords.

  2. Alastair Dodd

    we fear change

    i wonder if the men paid to walk infront of cars waving a red flag were against the change in the law as they would lose their jobs?

    Seriously this system will allow for more vehicles in the air but that will also mean many more humans to oversee this if flying cars ever happen - has the increase in car safety and automated traffic systems actually reduced the amount of people working in traffic control centers? I think not and automated phone systems haven't really reduced call center staff numbers appreciatively.

    Embrace it and they'll keep their jobs and if they are overseeing more traffic most likely get paid more too.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters


    Damn, you beat me to it!

  4. Mark
    Dead Vulture

    Surely the real test....

    is how it deals with another plane with the system?

    On a lighter note, all it needs is a kid with a model plane and a radar reflector and you could have cargo planes flying everywhere to avoid non existent threats!

  5. Dave F

    The future is here

    I demand that all scientists start working on jetpack technology now.

    Every day that goes by without a jetpack we shoot a scientist, I reckon we'd be whizzing around within a month.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    There's a shortsighted name...

    As bad as the "modern era".

  7. Bayleaf

    Respond safely

    "Northrop's DSA rig will be tested over the summer against multiple "intruder" aircraft, to see if it can respond safely.". I'd hate to be the pilot of the intruder if it doesn't respond safely.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down


    It is a good idea having flying cars etc...but surely the US would be worried about the general public being able to fly vehicles themselves? Specially after 9/11. If anyone could fly, terrorists would just put the explosives into any "flying" car and be away!

    Sure, they can use this new stuff to prevent the "cars" from flying into buildings, but if they really wanted to, they'd find a way to bypass it.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    Translation guide

    "It’s not inconceivable that DSA technology will be ready for use within a matter of years"


    "It will be years late and way over-budget"


  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    What about the pilot sitting in a seat with a parachute?

    Or, The drone pilot?

    I doubt if there was a huge risk you would be having Mr Easy flying his 737 to Ibiza doing the trials :p

  11. Dave Bell

    Missing something.

    One of constraints on airports is "wake turbulence". Fly too close behind a large aircraft, and you get bounced all over the place. When you're trying to land a plane, and so you're close to the ground, being bounced all over the place can be fatal.

    Maybe the timing on approach can be a bit closer with better navigation systems, but this isn't going to make much difference at the big, busy, airports.

    Besides, wasn't there a Thunderbirds episode about this?

  12. Graham Bartlett

    Transponders and safety

    I note that transponders are a major part of the equation.

    This is currently a hot topic amongst pilots, since Your Tax Pounds At Work (as funnelled through the CAA) are insisting that in the near future, all aircraft of any description will need to carry a transponder.

    The initial proposal was simply ludicrous, since it also covered hang-gliders, paragliders, balloons and sky-divers. Bear in mind that current transponders are the size of a briefcase and need serious current (ie. a car battery) to run them. The CAA insisted that mandating their fitment would create a market for someone to develop smaller, better transponders. Everyone said they were talking rubbish and it would destroy sport aviation. Consultation meetings found that of the people who dreamed this up, there wasn't a single person who'd done any gliding, hang-gliding, paragliding, ballooning or sky-diving.

    They've now dropped the more insane end of the proposals - hang-gliders, paragliders and sky-divers are now exempt. Fixed-wing gliders and microlights are still caught though. One reason given for this is safety - but a glider pilot pointed out during consultation that there hasn't been a single mid-air collision between a glider and a powered aircraft in 50 years, and fitting transponders to gliders is unlikely to help prevent glider-vs-glider mid-airs, since gliders are unlikely to have the gear to *receive* transponder signals (another large box of kit in its own right).

    But the original proposal made it clear why it was happening - so that UAVs could roam the skies freely, safe from nasty fleshy pilots.

    They've sadly ignored the fact that we also share the sky with non-human aviators. Swans, geese and other birds don't generally carry transponders, and a full-size goose hitting your windscreen at 100mph is not a recipe for a healthy aircraft (although it's a good recipe for goose mince).

  13. Anonymous Coward

    Less ground controllers - give that to us any day

    Considering how good the automated systems have become lately the less ground controllers the better. In fact we have all seen what happens when they are given the opportunity to direct aircraft without automatic assistance.

    Half an hour without an automated guidance system and here we go - a plane full of kids directed into the path of a cargo liner straight away. By a human ground controller. After that everything is immediately blamed on the pilot. And if it was not for German police who got their hands on the flight recorders first the fraud would have been successful like in a large number of previous incidents here and there around "civilised" Europe.

    For the reference - in most of EU the ground control and air traffic investigations report within the same business structure and if something can be blamed on the dead pilot it always is. The July 1st 2002 Bashkirian Airlines flight 2937 incident with the kids is just one example, many others. For example after the 10 January 1984 Tu 134 Berlin to Sofia the records were falsified after the crash to hide the fact that the ground crew has completely screwed up the altitude measurement for the lower bound of the clouds and blame the pilot. And so on, and so fourth.

    Anonymously, for obvious reasons. And no, I am not a lizard army leutenant...

  14. Ainteenbooty

    @ Dave F

    > I demand that all scientists start working on jetpack technology now.

    Dude! Get the with the program:

    Tecnologia Aeroespacial Mexicana is selling one for a mere 250,000 USD (what is that now, like 30 pounds?)

    They are also currently developing a bad ass personal helicopter backpack like the one from Beyond Dark Castle.

    I don't know about you, but when I think personal aerospace products I think Mexican engineering.

  15. Charles Manning

    @Dave Bell

    Part of making a successful system would entail not just detecting the object, but also calculating its wake effects etc ("Hmmm we have a 747 at 20000 ft doing 347 knots...) .... just like a meat version of a pilot must do.

    Just missing an object should be relatively simple: take "hit it" software from a missile and just put a minus sign in front of it.

    Calculate wake effects for extra credits.

    The hardest part of any automated system like this is ensuring system stability and correct behaviour when the sky is full of these robot pilots. For example, how do you ensure that they don't dodge into each others paths etc.

    Then, there's ensuring system stability when each vendor's software will behave differently and each different plane has different performance capabilities...

    Basically a control system test nightmare, but a gravy train to keep engineers and programmers employed for the next 20+ years.

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