Technology that helps save the lives of fighter pilots may one day eliminate the need for the pilots it was designed to protect.
Advancements in safety software installed onboard military fighter jets have led to systems that are being credited with saving the lives of nearly one dozen fighter pilots and preventing the loss of their aircraft in recent years.
A challenge encountered by fighter pilots maneuvering increasingly powerful planes capable of accelerating to Mach 2 and beyond is avoiding blacking out at the controls. While a relatively infrequent occurrence, it does happen, particularly during training missions. The current generation of F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-35 Lightning IIs has been receiving upgrades to AI-driven software that detects impending ground collisions if a pilot blacks out, taking over control of the aircraft and returning it to a safe heading. This is an admirable advancement in terms of safety, but ironically, the technology driving this software may, before very long, largely eliminate the need for the very pilots it was designed to save.
BACKGROUND: LIFE-SAVING TECHNOLOGY
When pilots experience too much gravitational force during high-speed maneuvers they can succumb to a condition known as G-induced loss of consciousness, or G-LOC. This is characterized by a tendency for the pilot’s blood to flow toward their extremities and away from their brains, which may result in fainting. There are exercises pilots practice to prevent this from happening and modern flight suits are designed to mitigate the effect as well, but both have their limits.
Just last year, two F-16 pilots flying over a test range in Nevada experienced G-LOC events, losing consciousness. In both instances, an onboard system took over control of the planes, righted them in a stable flight configuration and prevented the planes from impacting the ground. A safety review after each incident concluded that both planes would almost certainly have crashed had the software not intervened.
The software that saved the pilots and planes was developed by Lockheed Martin, the same company that manufactures both the F-16 and the F-35. It’s named the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, or AGCAS. The technology is not installed in all combat aircraft yet, but will likely eventually be ubiquitous among our fleets of fighter craft.
ANALYSIS: IS OUR TECHNOLOGY OUTGROWING THE NEED FOR PILOTS?
While the fighter pilots in our combat aircraft are safer today, they’re not nearly as safe as a new generation of pilots who are currently fighting alongside them but doing it from the other side of the world. New generations of Unmanned Aeriel Vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, have been increasingly taking on combat duties traditionally [ … ]