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Special Feature: Revolutionary Approach

This article is taken from the Sept. 2004 issue of PRISM, ASEE’s award-winning magazine.

Vehicles that guide themselves without human control are a staple of futuristic visions. More recently, they have been the subject of some serious, if still modest, experiments: keeping traffic moving safely on “smart” highways, for one; or the Mars Rovers for another, which were equipped with a limited autonomous capability to plan their own routes across the Martian landscape and use their own onboard cameras to avoid obstacles.

But a team of hundreds of engineers at Boeing and Northrop Grumman are now working under a high-pressure deadline to turn what’s been mostly a dream up until now into a system that in a few years will be able to perform this feat for real-and in one of the most dangerous environments that exists anywhere. The goal of the Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System (“J-UCAS”) program is to field a whole network of unmanned fighter planes that will be able to destroy enemy air defenses, attack deep targets, and conduct high-risk reconnaissance missions. And to do that, the planes will need to be able to make split-second decisions without any help from ground controllers. “The Mars Rover, it moves inches at a time,” says Kevin Wooley, mission software manager for Boeing’s X-45, one of two unmanned combat airplanes being built under the J-UCAS program. “We’re traveling at jet aircraft speeds and dropping weapons and trying to react to pop-up targets that arise.”

You can view this article in the Sept. 2004 issue of PRISM at

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