The U.S Air Force’s 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force conducted an autonomous test flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California, July 25. The flight’s mission was to test a software suite designed to make unmanned aerial vehicle flight safer.
“What we have here today is a sub-scaled jet-powered aircraft; it’s about 12 feet long and can do about 250 knots,” said Jeff Jessen, Chief Engineer, Emerging Technology Combined Test Force. “Our goal is to verify an autonomy safety net that was developed by John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, called TACE, Testing Autonomy in a Complex Environment.”
The TACE test is part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program. The Skyborg program is a developing software tool that allows engineers and researchers to develop autonomous capabilities. AFRL plans to have Skyborg as an Early Operational Capability as early as 2023. To help meet that requirement, engineers are testing autonomous elements like TACE to provide safety foundations for future tests.
The TACE safety net programming sits between a vehicle’s safety-critical control system and its mission system. Proven algorithms keep the plane within safe bounds defined before takeoff. Jessen said, the idea is to let the autonomous test aircraft fly itself out of the safety bounds; the TACE program would then take over control of the airplane and take it to a safe point.
Skyborg’s TACE complements AFRL’s previous work with artificial intelligence used with programs such as the Automatic Ground and Air Collision Avoidance Systems, which have been proven to have saved lives.
Earlier this year, ET-CTF conducted a TACE test on a smaller, lower-performance aircraft. That earlier test proved that the program works on a slower aircraft, one that flew at 30 knots. After today’s test, ET-CTF will eventually equip TACE on even larger, more powerful, full-size aircraft.
“Ultimately this is going to be our safety net for future autonomous testing, we hope to be testing autonomy that does air combat-type maneuvers and TACE is fundamental to being able to allow us to do that safely and effectively,” Jessen said.