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Manned-Unmanned Teaming: What Does It Mean for Helicopters and Pilots?

Posted 4 years 16 days ago ago by Admin

Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) is a term that helicopter pilots need to remember. MUM-T refers to efforts by helicopter OEMs to integrate unmanned rotary and fixed-wing drones and helicopters into functional, teaming relationships – based on Aristotle’s observation that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In the case of MUM-T, combining drones and helicopters creates teams that can do more than drones or helicopters alone. A case in point: Imagine a military ‘tank killer’ helicopter receiving targeting data from a fleet of autonomous surveillance drones. The drones would be tasked to spot enemy tanks and send their coordinates to the helicopter’s weapons system. The pilot/crewman in charge would then simply decide which targets to fire upon.

In the civilian world, MUM teams could be highly effective when it comes to search and rescue, police aerial searches, and humanitarian relief efforts. In fact, any mission in which wide-area, time-sensitive aerial surveillance is required is a natural for MUM-T -- especially if the drones are either autonomous or flown from the ground, leaving pilot(s) to focus on actionable intelligence gathered by them.                                                                     

“The day will come when drones and manned helicopters are all integrated into a system of systems; one where the humans remain in charge and benefit from the work the drones do,” said Tony Duthie, head of land and maritime marketing for Leonardo Helicopters UK. “We will all be comfortable with these MUM-T applications,” he added, because drones and manned helicopters will each have their roles to play.

MUM-T So Far

Not surprisingly, helicopter OEMs have been busy exploring MUM-T capabilities, in a variety of ways.

Airbus Helicopters’ MUM-T efforts have focussed on combining a manned Airbus H145 and an unmanned Schiebel CAMCOPTER S-100 unmanned air system (UAS). The company’s initial tests were staged in 2018, where the S-100 acted as the H145's eyes in detecting hidden ground targets; among other tests. 

Credit = Image by Airbus

Most importantly, the S-100 was fully controlled by the H145 crew through all stages of flight; including takeoff and landing. In the MUM-T world, this qualifies a ‘Level of Interoperability 5” (LOI5) flight, the highest level possible for manned-unmanned teaming. 

Level 1: Indirect receipt/transmission of drone-collected data and metadata to helicopter; drone piloted autonomously or remotely from the ground.
Level 2: Direct receipt/transmission of drone-collected data and metadata to helicopter; drone piloted autonomously or remotely from the ground.
Level 3: Manned helicopter controls the drone payload (cameras and sensors); drone piloted autonomously or remotely from the ground.
Level 4: Manned helicopter controls all drone functions except takeoff and landing
Level 5: Manned helicopter controls all drone functions including takeoff and landing

“What we learned from the H145/S-100 MUM-T tests is that manned-unmanned teaming is absolutely possible; because we’ve done it,” said Airbus Helicopters H145 Program Manager Mark Henning. “Our plan now is to refine our MUM-T capabilities and conduct further tests in the future.”

Bell is focussed on building autonomous unmanned helicopters in both the civilian and military sectors through its Bell Nexus self-flying Air Taxi and the unmanned V-247 Vigilant variant of its manned V-280 Valor tiltrotor; all of which are under development. 

Credit = Image by Bell Flight

Pairing the V-247 and V-280 for MUM-T missions is a natural choice. “When you consider the cost of manned assets and the value of helicopter pilots, combining the V-247 and V-280 can create real efficiencies,” said Bell VP of Innovation Scott Drennan. “They can also provide strategic and tactical advantages among your enemies, as you’re coming into theater with different types of assets fulfilling different roles separately and together, rather than using one asset that does it all.”

Leonardo’s MUM-T capabilities were proven during Exercise Italian Blade in 2015, when the company’s optionally piloted SW-4 SOLO rotorcraft drone flew joint missions with Leonardo’s manned military helicopters The company sees its AWHERO, a 200 kilogram-class rotary UAS, working with manned platforms on missions such as anti-surface ship/submarine warfare, military surveillance/interdiction, and close air support. Like Airbus, Leonardo’s MUM-T missions can range from LOI1 to LOI5, depending on the needs of their clients.

Credit = Image by Leonardo

“One MUM-T project that we are particularly interested in is the RAF’s Project Mosquito,” said Alex Tucker, a military adviser with Leonardo Helicopters UK. “The idea here is that drones could be launched in large formations to ‘swarm’ an enemy’s anti-aircraft defenses; providing cover for manned aircraft on attack/bombing runs.” In this scenario, the drones could serve as reconnaissance platforms to help the manned aircraft find and hit their targets, and ‘sacrificial lambs’ to take some of the anti-aircraft fire aimed at the attackers.

Credit = Image by UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory

The possibility of MUM-T missions is implicit in Erickson Incorporated’s recent deal with Sikorsky (a Lockheed Martin company) to create optionally piloted nighttime firefighting helicopters. The goal is to integrate Sikorsky’s MATRIX technology, which is designed to support both autonomous and pilot-optional flight, with a digitally-enabled fire management system being developed by Erickson. Firefighting helicopters equipped with this technology would be able to fly dangerous night missions on their own, or in tandem with manned helicopters.

Credit = Image by Rotorcraft Pro

Autonomy is Key

The OEM’s desire to develop MUM-T is tempered by their awareness of pilot workloads. Simply put, no one wants the inclusion of drones to a manned helicopter’s arsenal to make more work for the air crew. If anything, they wanted this capability added in ways that reduce a pilot’s workload.

This is why ‘autonomy’ is the big buzz word among MUM-T advocates. They want drones to be able to fly themselves autonomously and to execute their missions autonomously too. This means that the control, navigation, and payload systems on these aircraft may require some degree of artificial intelligence (AI) to manage their operations. 

Granted, these functions can be done remotely today by ground-based pilots. Still the dream is for autonomous drones to manage themselves, providing manned helicopters with information, protection, and support, like a team of well-trained, intelligent sled dogs pulling a human-steered sleigh. In this world, the MUM-T mission is like an orchestra with the pilot as the conductor and the drones as musicians – where the symphony created is greater than the sum of any individual instrument.

Possible Impact on Helicopter Design

At least some of the helicopters of the future will be built to support MUM-T missions. Those that do will need robust transmission links, and control systems capable of taking data from drones and directing them as necessary; a demanding requirement that may see AI-enabled systems turn up in manned helicopters as a result.

Since weight is always an issue, OEMs will do their best to develop MUM-T suites that do not devour manned helicopter payload capacities and ranges. This could lead to MUM-T hardware being built into the drones themselves. 

Meanwhile, the need to pass large amounts of real-time data back and forth could see MUM-T aircraft communicate with each other over distributed aerial wireless networks, with each drone adding some degree of processing power to the MUM-T ‘squadron’ (for want of a better word). This is because a spoke-and-hub approach, in which the manned helicopter would ingest lots of data from multiple drone sources, would put a large processing demand on the manned rotorcraft’s systems. A distributed system would lessen the load and add the possibility of some redundancy being hosted on the drones’ own processing systems.

What MUM-T Means for Pilots

So far this article has examined the mission and design implications of MUM-T. But what does teaming manned helicopters with drones mean for pilots? Will drones put some of them out of a job?

Logically, the answer is no. This is because MUM-T scenarios envisioned by OEMs all see pilots as being at the center of these operations; with drones enhancing their overall mission capabilities. 

“Tools such as drone autonomy, artificial intelligence, and drone-based target intelligence are all designed to empower the human pilot to make better decisions with less stress,” said Leonardo’s Duthie. “The whole point of MUM-T is not to lessen the importance of humans in the cockpit, but to make them even more useful and effective.”

In other words, the robots are not coming for your job. Instead the robots – in the form of drones – will allow you to do much more in the cockpit with enhanced ease and reduced stress. 

Think of MUM-T as being the ultimate in mission automation. It will handle the base level and investigatory task, leaving the humans to make the big decisions.

Admittedly, this is all blue-sky thinking. MUM-T is sufficiently in its infancy that human pilots will be managing the lion’s share of rotorcraft duties for the foreseeable future.

Still, MUM-T points to a fundamental change that is coming in helicopter and fixed-wing flight; one that will free humans from the most dangerous, dirty, and drudgery-filled mission duties, while vastly enhancing their ability to be effective aloft. This is why pilots of all ages need to keep a close eye on the progress of MUM-T and consider how their career goals could mesh with new technology. 

After all, most people had never heard of the World Wide Web until it went public in 1991. Yet, today the web is the nervous system of our world. One day, MUM-T could be just as central to the missions being flown exclusively by manned helicopters today.