Send in the clones

Demonstrations at Fort Hood, Texas last month showed the efficacy of Lockheed Martin’s Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS) – or, in simpler language – driverless trucks.

Previous work in unmanned ground vehicles has concentrated either on small, tactical units for the ISR role or on unmanned trucks in a rural/battlefield environment. AMAS, however, is aimed at enabling autonomous operations in an urban environment. The trial successfully demonstrated the ability to ‘sense and avoid’ hazards or obstacles that included road features and intersections, oncoming traffic and – perhaps most fortunately – pedestrians.

The AMAS programme is a concrete proof of the US military’s desire to get robotic systems – whether truly autonomous or tele-operated – into the hands of the warfighter. And that meets the cultural expectations and aspirations of a society that has developed a distaste bordering on zero tolerance for bodybags returning soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen from corners of foreign fields.

This does not necessarily hold true, however, for other nations and companies espousing the unmanned systems route as a panacea for all defence needs of the future need to be aware of this. Nobody is arguing that when it comes to a moral choice, any government is likely to prefer casualties to spending money on ‘peripheral’ systems. In a pragmatic sense, however, that is just what happens when budget restrictions mean that a nation with limited resources for procurement will continue to find methods of making its soldiers more effective, rather than developing an entirely new concept of operations revolving around expensive and currently uncertain unmanned systems.

Unmanned systems – even those as apparently anodyne as trucks – carry a sting in the tail in that they are disruptive in their effect. Disruptive, that is, to established doctrine and procedure. Some – including me from time to time – would argue that is a good thing. But let us be certain of the price we will all have to pay in terms of wholesale change before we embrace ‘unmanned’ as the ultimate solution.

UAS: artificial intelligence arrives at last

Boeing is now fitting split scimitar design improvements to its winglets, improving fuel performance by an estimated 1.5% over the 4% already gained by fitting the wind-tip structures. The USA remains ten years of Europe in this area. Europe’s way back in? The rather secretive €51 million SARISTU – SmARt Intelligent Aircraft STrUctures – programme, a consortium of 61 European aerospace companies and research institutions from 16 European countries researching morphing leading trailing and trail edge devices which could deliver 6% fuel saving improvements after 2015. But these are unlikely to be offered as retrofits as all the elements are integrated. It will be too much, too late.

Airports: Developing Stansted would generate £20 billion revenue

In May 2103 a consortium of Turkish construction companies agreed to pay the Turkish government €22.1 billion over 25 years to build and operate the new airport. There is only one sensible place for London’s next airport – Stansted. Boris Island is absurdly expensive and knocking down houses to build another runway at Heathrow is wrong on so many levels. Stansted has everything you need for a hub – surrounded by miles of flat green countryside where you can lay out another four runways without fuss or bother, transport links already to central London and an airport layout modelled on Atlanta, the most effective hub in the world. Sell Heathrow, move London’s hub to Stansted and develop it as a BOT franchise – revenue would be more than £20 billion. On the subject of UK airports, well done to the owners of Gatwick. The gaffer-tape index I use to measure the degree of dilapidation of an airport terminal – the amount of times thick black tape is applied to walls, ceilings and carpet to keep the structures together – peaked at 23 in April 2009 in Gatwick. It’s down to four now.