People are starting to get used to the fact that unmanned aircraft, or UAVs in military parlance (for unmanned air vehicle), are being used quite a lot these days, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Generally it’s in a nonlethal spying mode, but the occasional UCAV makes an appearance, where C stands for Combat. What’s counterintuitive about these vehicles is that, despite their moniker, they actually require more people for a normal mission than a manned vehicle. Another interesting tidbit is that, while there is no human on board the aircraft, there is in fact a human pilot. He’s just sitting on the ground at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, 15,000 miles from the actual plane. Which is just amazing when you think about it.
UAVs have shown great promise, the most important of which is that they can complete a mission and never ever require you to send in a rescue team to recover a downed pilot. But they suffer from some shortcomings. First of all, the generals who buy them were all combat pilots, and they don’t much like turning pilots into videogame players. Also, they currently require too much manpower to operate. But this is beginning to change, and given the capabilities of current hardware and software these days, I’m sure it will change quickly.
One indication of this change is the Polecat project recently unveiled by Lockheed Martin’s secretive Skunk Works. Polecat shows great promise by simultaneously attacking the two great problems of any new airplane: the cost of building it, and the cost of operating it. Operationally the plane will feature advanced software that more or less allows you to tell it where to go without having to pay a fancy-pants pilot to step away from the craps table. Eventually these robot planes will unionize and drive up the operational costs again, but until then, we’ll be able to fly them damn cheap (relatively speaking).
Nicer than this is the fact that this plane was designed and built from scratch in 18 months. If we are to believe this, then aviation is entering a new golden age. Typical manned aircraft these days take a good fraction of a decade to develop. I was trained as an aeronautical engineer, and this one fact more than any other made me get out of the business. Throw the man out of the plane, and everything can happen faster. Beyond not needing seats and cup-holders, Polecat was built quickly because it was literally printed out by special 3-d rapid prototyping machines. In other words, the engineer who designed the wing could, after signing off on it, simply click a button that says “Make this now.” This is where the future is headed. Initially only R&D vehicles will be built like this. Eventually, though, your own customized car will be printed at a massive car printing facility near your home. You’ll be able to pick it up the day after you order it. Assuming the robot driver lets you get in.