Last fall I found myself in a “spirited” debate with a few of my colleagues about how UAVs would integrate into the Navy’s carrier operations environment (this is what happens when a bunch of ex-naval aviators get together and prognosticate about the future…but I digress). The crux of the discussion was around who would do the majority of adapting: UAVs or the supporting elements onboard the carrier?
As an example, during normal operations LSOs (Landing Signals Officers) are stationed at the aft end of the carrier to ensure the safe and expeditious recovery of all aircraft. They are entrusted by the ship and airwing commanders to help pilots land and, when necessary, visually and verbally communicate signals for pilots to “wave off” and try the landing again. Check out this video of a carrier landing on the flight deck.
In a similar manner, the deck crews taxi the aircraft around to its final shutdown position using a series of hand and light signals in what can only be described as a chaotic ballet. The video below shows the operations aboard a carrier deck.
With the introduction of UAVs into the carrier environment, LSOs, deck crews, and others will have an interesting challenge of safeguarding operations without comprising them. Researchers at MIT are working on a series of exciting experiments to address this issue.
In short, the researchers are “training” UAV sensors to recognize the intricate hand signals and motions that are commonplace on the carrier deck. For example, there are specific motions to taxi forward, right, left, apply brakes, etc. These standardized motions allow the deck crews to “drive” the aircraft into certain positions, often times moving the nosewheel to within inches (yes, inches) of the carrier deck.
Although the technology is nascent, the idea is spot on. Other options include hooking up directly to a UAV and taxiing it around with a joystick (to the elation of all those X-Box players out there) or taxiing via remote control from Vulture’s Row, perhaps.
In terms of landing UAVs on the carrier, the days of LSOs using hand signals is long gone. However, LSOs will continue to have the authority to ensure a clear deck by maintaining wave-off command over UAVs via electronic signals. In other words, if the LSO does not give a green light or if he hits the “pickle” because the deck becomes foul, a signal will be sent to the UAV that will cause it to immediately execute a wave-off and return into the landing pattern for another go-around.
Much work has yet to be done, but the good news is that the best and brightest in the world are beginning to develop innovative solutions.