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Will Robotic Drones Replace Human Fighter Pilots?

Lee Hudson, a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent who covers the Pentagon reported in Aviation Week magazine (AvWeek) on Elon Musk’s speculation on human pilots eventually becoming less effective in combat than robotic drones.  Musk reportedly said that the Lockheed Martin F-35 should have a competitor that “should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy. The F-35 would have no chance against it.”  

Drones can perform high-speed maneuvers that produce G-forces greater than human pilots can sustain, but could a remote-controlled drone outperform a fighter pilot in a dogfight? 

Douglas Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, writing for Defensenews.com, recently opined otherwise in an article titled: “Sorry, Elon, fighter pilots will fly and fight for a long time.” Birkey notes that “the potential of near-term and midterm autonomy should not be conflated with science fiction-like objectives,” and offers that autonomous aircraft will eventually be used as mission partners, and that testing is well underway, but that “Trusting in an autonomous system to determine friend from foe and deploy lethal force without human approval is far from prudent.” This update summary is the tip of the iceberg and we highly recommend reading Birkey’s article. In order shown, the drones depicted are the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, at an airport in Cyprus (File AP photo), the USAF QF-16 stealth drone (courtesy of Nationalinterest.org/blog), and the XQ-58A-Valkyrie (courtesy of Wikipedia). 

Thanks to CDR David Place (USN/Ret), davidplace47[at]gmail[dot]com, and Robin E. Alexander, President ATC, alexander technical[at]gmail[dot]com, for their assistance with this report.

David offers a free, comprehensive news report on unmanned systems and robotics, the Unmanned Systems News (USN), in PDF format that is distributed every week or two, as well as serial news flashes, from which this news update was sourced. To be included in his viewership, simply send David a subscribe request to davidplace47[at]gmail[dot]com.