Boeing Co. and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory conducted a successful flight test in early February that enabled a fighter aircraft to access far more intelligence data than is typically available to pilots — but without overwhelming that pilot with too much data, according to company officials.
The software for the experiment used what Boeing calls “intelligent agents” to filter information in a way that ensured the pilots were not deluged by data that was not immediately relevant to their mission, the officials said.
Boeing has been working on the software under contract to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Information Directorate of Rome, N.Y.
Patrick Stokes, Boeing Phantom Works project manager for network-centric operations research and development in St. Louis , declined to comment on the value of the contract, but said it was under $1 million.
The experiment took place Feb. 1 and Feb. 3 in St. Louis using an F-15 aircraft equipped with a small computer loaded with software that allowed it to plug into the Pentagon’s Global Information Grid, the military’s overarching communications network commonly known as the GIG.
The aircraft was flown by Boeing test pilots who are members of the Air Force reserve and have flown in combat during operations. The use of experienced military pilots helped the company design realistic scenarios that put the software through realistic tests, Stokes said. Those pilots reported no problems with the software during the demonstration, he said.
The demonstration was conducted with an F-15, but the software could be installed on a variety of aircraft used by the Air Force and Navy, or on ground vehicles like the U.S. Army’s planned Future Combat System, Stokes said.
Some of the information that a pilot would want to draw on includes location of friendly forces on the ground to avoid fratricide, location of friendly aircraft to avoid collisions and imagery of the targets on the ground, Stokes said.
Without the use of the intelligent software agents, this information could quickly become overwhelming, said Eric Martens, Boeing Phantom Works principal investigator on the program in St. Louis.
Providing the location of all friendly forces in the region gives a pilot so much information that it might not make much sense, so the software filters the information to provide the locations only of forces in the immediate area or flight path of the aircraft, Martens said.
“If a pilot is flying in Iraq, he doesn’t want to get the location of every [friendly] force in the country,” Martens said. “We don’t want them to have to Google what they need.”
Other information that the software enables the pilots to draw upon includes imagery from nearby unmanned surveillance aircraft, Martens said.
A software agent aboard the unmanned aerial vehicle could communicate directly with the software agent aboard a tactical fighter aircraft and to let the pilot know where the unmanned system would be flying, and what imagery or other data could be provided, Martens said.
The software also enables the aircraft to better share data with officials on the ground, the officials said.
During the demonstration, the software collected data on the vehicle’s health, including available fuel supply and weapon load, and sent that information to the ground, where officials used that information to decide if the aircraft was capable of striking a secondary target, and ultimately chose to redirect it to do so, Stokes said.
That information also can be useful to mechanics on the ground who can use it to make plans and be ready to perform maintenance as soon as the aircraft lands, or know how many additional bombs may be needed to reload the aircraft, Martens said.
Communications satellites were not used to transmit and receive data during the experiment, but would almost certainly be used to do so during an operation, said Daryl Stephenson, a Boeing spokesman. The software also could help the aircraft pass information from its own sensors to other users connected to the Global Information Grid, he said.
Boeing currently is working with the Air Force as well as the Army and Navy on a plan to transition this software into operational air and ground systems, Martens said. The company is working with the services to develop a formal list of systems that could use the software, which could be ready for fielding within a year if the Pentagon makes the decision to do so, he said.
Boeing placed a small computer with the software on the F-15 during the demonstration, but would likely modify the existing displays on operational systems to incorporate its capabilities, Martens said.