Loaded with special sensors and other gadgets, a small Piper Cub aircraft flew on auto pilot shortly after it took off Wednesday from a dirt strip at the McKenna Urban Operations Complex.
Georgia Tech Research Institute teamed up with Fort Benning's Maneuver Battle Lab this week to test the ability of the unmanned aircraft to perform tasks that may help reconnaissance missions for brigade units. Three other miniature Piper Cubs and a drone-type aircraft called the Boomer UAS were used as part of the tests on post.
"The challenge is to have the air robots fly autonomously and load a flight plan and you don't necessarily have a controller controlling the aircraft," said Harry Lubin, chief of the experimentation branch at the Maneuver Battle Lab. "Collaboratively, they can talk to each other and pass information to each other and make adjustments as required to the flight plan."
Lubin said the aircraft provide great capability for reconnaissance, but units have to pull soldiers to control the unmanned systems. Having fewer soldiers to operate the aircraft would increase the combat power of the unit.
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"The more unmanned systems we get, the more of our combat power we deplete," Lubin said. "So, the more we can get robots operating on their own without having a direct controller and operator collaboratively, the more that would increase our combat power."
Georgia Tech is performing the experiments with the aircraft because the research university has signed an agreement with the Army to share technology.
With more than 225 miles of restricted airspace, the college can perform tests at Fort Benning that it couldn't conduct in the metro Atlanta area.
Charles Pippin, a research scientist at Georgia Tech, described controlling the aircraft as having an autopilot in the front seat and autonomous pilot in the back giving high level commands.
The control allows an unmanned aircraft to be guided with a pre-determined flight plan or given controls to change its course.
One task being tested is getting more than one aircraft to fly at the same time to complete a mission.
"They are both doing this autonomously without any help from the group," Pippin said. "Another mission we are investigating is how these aircraft can exchange tasks with each other."
In 2010, Pippin said Georgia Tech performed a demonstration with two aircraft searching for a target on the ground.
The first aircraft spotted the target and both circled the area and requested assistance from the ground.
"What we are investigating is how these systems can exchange tasks with each other and perform formation flights with each other and also dynamically perform teams," Pippin said.
"You can imagine a scenario in a dynamic environment on ground. You need to send task requests to the clouds and see which has the capability to perform those tasks."
There will still be a need for humans, although unmanned aircraft are performing tasks in the sky for soldiers.
"We still believe the human will need to be in the loop," Pippin said. "This is a step in that direction."
David Price, a research technologist at Georgia Tech, said the university isn't using expensive equipment to perform tests.
The Piper aircraft can be purchased for less than $1,000. Each was modified and has the ability to carry 7 to 10 pounds.
They typically fly the aircraft at 1,000 feet but they can go as high at 10,000 feet at 35 to 40 mph.
The test flight was 9 minutes, 40 seconds on Wednesday.
The drone-type aircraft is more expensive and can stay in the air longer.
Lubin said the small aircraft could help infantry soldiers look around a corner or on a roof top.
"It would give us that advantage at the tactical level," he said.
To improve, Lubin said Army has partnerships with a number of agencies, including Columbus State University.
"The key is improving capabilities for the force," he said. "The goal is no fair fight. We want to provide that overmatched capability under the tactical edge. We will partner with anybody we can to get that."