The United States Air Force’s 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technologies (ET) Combined Test Force (CTF) completed the first flight test of Johns Hopkins University’s Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments (TACE) system. As “middleware,” TACE monitors commands sent to an aircraft’s autopilot software from its autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) computer and transmits autopilot information such as position, speed, and orientation back to the AI.
The 412th Test Wing ET CTF tested the aircraft-agnostic TACE system on a hand-launched Swift Radio Panes (SRP) Lynx unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or “drone.” Over the course of three days, the test team demonstrated the TACE system’s ability to redirect the Lynx aircraft to a safety area if it approached a virtual border. The team also demonstrated the system’s ability to track a simulated vehicle on the ground without human commands.
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“Today we had an autonomous algorithm commanding the aircraft without any direct human involvement; we call it human on the loop as opposed to most remotely piloted aircraft that are human in the loop,” says 412th Test Wing ET CTF Autonomy lead, Captain Riley Livermore.
According to Livermore, TACE fulfills two main functions, the first being that of an “autonomy watchdog.”
“If a safety-of-flight parameter is violated during an autonomously commanded maneuver — aka proximity to other test aircraft, flying out of an airspace boundary, or losing communications with the ground unit — then TACE will stop the commands from the autonomy and force it to remediate and loiter at a pre-determined safety location,” says Livermore.
The 412th Test Wing ET CTF Autonomy test team monitors a small unmanned aircraft system at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (Image courtesy: United States Air Force/Kenji Thuloweit)
The second function, Live-Virtual-Constructive, is the ability for TACE to allow simulated entities to interact with live aircraft.
“TACE controls what the autonomy computer sees and therefore can manipulate that information to allow for simulated entities to influence its decision making,” says Livermore. “For example, using TACE, a single live aircraft can fly in formation with a virtual wingman, with simulated sensors, flying in a simulated GPS-denied environment. The beautiful thing about TACE and [live, virtual, and constructive training] is that it can stress the autonomous algorithms without jeopardizing the safety of flight.”
According to Riley, mastery of an autonomous flying system could be an asset for the warfighter.
“Both the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the 2019 National Defense Appropriations Act mandate that the services develop, test, and implement autonomous and AI systems,” says Livermore. “TACE is a crucial first step in providing a safe, rapid and effective tool for evaluating these systems. The current use case for autonomous systems in the Air Force is as a loyal wingman. The concept there being an autonomous wingman who can cooperatively work with and help a manned aircraft through a variety of scenarios.”
The ET CTF will conduct another autonomous flight test within next few weeks and potentially on larger UAS – that can fly up to 250 miles per hour – this summer. Upon successful completion of TACE flight testing, the unit will be able to declare autonomy test Initial Operation Capability.
“The main features will be our flight tested TACE system that is compatible with an open systems architecture. This will allow us to rapidly and safely test unknown autonomy and AI algorithms developed by third-party vendors,” adds Livermore.
Initial reporting by Kenji Thuloweit, 412th Test Wing Public Affairs
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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.
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