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Autonomous Warplanes: NASA Rovers Lead the Way

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Technical Report

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Air Command and Staff College Maxwell AFB United States

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The capabilities and use of remotely piloted aircraft RPA are growing at a remarkable pace, quickly becoming indispensable parts of military operations and assets greatly valued by commanders in the field. With advancements in technology, RPAs are becoming more autonomous or capable of performance with less direct human control. Research conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA offers useful lessons for the development of future military RPAs that may allow the United States to maintain its current status as a world leader in the rapidly evolving RPA field. This paper employs the problemsolution methodology to identify those aspects of NASAs rover autonomy research that may apply to military RPA development. Specifically, the concept of modular design and the rovers feature detection, planning, scheduling, and prioritization subsystems offer solutions to current RPA challenges. Additionally, NASAs successful implementation of adjustable autonomy demonstrates an important transitional model that will be critical for the incremental transition from remotely piloted to autonomous warplanes. The pursuit of fully autonomous warplanes will persist due to the numerous advantages offered by autonomous operation and competitive pressures in the international arena. This paper recommends that the US Air Force mimic the design principles NASA has proven to be effective and, in particular, adhere to a modular approach in its procurement of future RPA systems.

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