When I was stationed at Wright Patterson I volunteered to participate in an Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD) research project involving remotely piloted vehicles (RPV’s), the results of which may very well have laid the foundations of the military drones we hear so much about these days. At the time ASD was located in a segregated area on a the east side of the base across from the south end of the runway.
I remember entering a large warehouse and being escorted to a training module set atop a hydraulic lift that I soon discovered was being used to simulate the buffeting one experiences flying low level where updrafts are the order of the day.
Inside the trainer’s spartan confines was an ejection seat, control stick, headset, and a television monitor which was embedded in the wall. The latter displayed a live video feed emanating from a camera overhanging a man made countryside laid out on the floor of the same warehouse. The terrain the camera overflew reminded me of the kind of scenery one might see surrounding a model train setup only it was far more exotic and expansive — farms, fields, forested mountains, highways, train tracks, a city and a small village or two.
In a quick briefing, I was told that it would be my responsibility to “fly” the camera unit over the aforementioned landscape. What I wasn’t told was that the trainer would be moving as well.
Given the fact that today kids do the same thing using all sorts of video games, the task might seem not only commonplace but rather easy. Such was not the case for me because my brain couldn’t reconcile two vastly different sensory inputs — the visual imagery I was seeing on the screen and the often times contradictory movement of the trainer itself.
Overreacting to the trainer’s movement, I drove the unit into the scenery below — not once but twice. Needless to say, the engineers running the program weren’t any too pleased to find themselves stopping the test both times to reset the camera system so the test could be resumed. The third time it happened, the engineer who had been walking me through the process via the headset blew his stack and invited me to leave.
I have to wonder if the study I participated in wasn’t specifically designed to determine whether RPV controllers would be able to rely on visual cues to maintain course and altitude when confronted by contradictory, seat of the pants inputs. I have to also wonder if the engineer’s anger stemmed from the realization that the answer to that question didn’t coincide with his expectations.
It’s interesting to note that the first generation of RPVs were, in fact, flown from in-theater, airborne platforms but today they are being flown by individuals working in fixed, land based facilities using satellite communications. I guess in the end it was decided that better results can be achieved if seat of the pants inputs are not a variable in the mission’s equation.