Ever since the first military drone took to the sky, pilots have wondered if their days in the fight were numbered. Drones, first relied on for reconnaissance, were soon armed and carrying out combat operations that used to fall solely to manned aircraft. Drones have grown to encompass more and more of the U.S. military’s aerial operations, but their use in complex missions has long been hindered by our means of control. A drone operated by a human being thousands of miles away simply lacks the situational awareness and rapid decision making capabilities that manned aircraft possess, making drones an effective means of delivering precision guided munitions, but ineffective in other airborne support roles like flying as the wing man for fighters policing the skies.
Programs like Loyal Wingman already aim to take pilots out of the seats of aging fighter jets like the F-16 or F/A-18 Hornet, putting them back in the fight as armed combat drones that would potentially accompany advanced fighters like the F-35 into contested airspace. The F-16 drones would fly support for the more expensive (and manned) aircraft that would simultaneously serve at the data transmission hub for the drone wingmen, and potentially, as the drone controller. New DARPA technology that has already proven capable of allowing a single pilot to control multiple aircraft using nothing but her brain could soon make swarms of drone wingmen a reality in combat zones around the world.
“As of today, signals from the brain can be used to command and control… not just one aircraft but three simultaneous types of aircraft,” Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s biological technology office, said at the agency’s recent 60th anniversary event. “The signals from those aircraft can be delivered directly back to the brain so that the brain of that user [or pilot] can also perceive the environment,” said Sanchez. “It’s taken a number of years to try and figure this out.”
This sort of technology may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually based on science that’s been around for some time. There are already a number of products available on the market that allow you to control anything from video games to electric motors. DARPA’s setup takes that concept to an extreme, however, forgoing the traditional headset in favor of a direct physical connection with the brain via a computer chip. DARPA was able to connect a paralyzed woman’s brain to an F-35 flight simulator in 2015, allowing her to control the steering of the aircraft. Since then, they’ve repeated the experiment with a paralyzed man named Nathan with even greater success. Nathan has been able to control up to three different aircraft simultaneously using only his mind.
“We’ve scaled it to three [aircraft], and have full sensory [signals] coming back. So you can have those other planes out in the environment and then be detecting something and send that signal back into the brain,” Sanchez said at the event in Maryland. He didn’t offer a specific date, but noted that they had achieved this breakthrough “some months ago.”
Being able to control multiple aircraft and receive pertinent information from them via a computer chip implanted in the brain could offer pilots unprecedented awareness of their battlespace, or give drone operators located elsewhere the increased awareness they’d need to make quick decisions required in full scale combat operations. F-35s of the future could fly into contested airspace alongside a swarm of drones ranging from small reconnaissance craft to full sized fourth generation fighters, engaging targets with either drone or manned assets based on the circumstance and, if need be, sacrificing unmanned platforms to protect the manned aircraft at the helm of the entire endeavor.
With the U.S. Air Force facing an ongoing shortage of suitable combat pilots, technology like this could mean the number of pilots required in combat may dwindle to fairly few — but because of delays in transmission time in drone operations, it seems unlikely that we’ll see a day free of pilots any time in the near future.
Then again, there was a time when controlling drones with your mind sounded like a distant reality too.