Fighter pilot Mary “Missy” Cummings saw it coming while landing her F/A-18 supersonic jet on a Navy aircraft carrier — the world-changing disruption barreling toward the present.
Instead of landing the multi-million-dollar machine on the small deck of the ship herself in the 1990s, a computer accomplished the tricky feat for her.
“Here the computer was taking off better than I could, landing itself better than I could and doing the mission better than I ever could,” Cummings said Tuesday during the Wired Disruptive by Design business conference. “It was really humiliating. That was what used to make me better than everyone else.”
Eventually Cummings took a step back, told herself the heyday of fighter pilots was over and joined the robots. She’s now an aeronautics professor at MIT working to tackle the monotonous work of flying, farming and other industries with autonomous drones.
Robo-Pilots on the Rise
Cummings said the automated take-offs and landings by both military and civilian aircraft are now really good. So good that “it’s technically possible,” she said, for a commercial flight to take off, fly and land without the input of a human pilot.
Yet plenty of problems exist for robots to solve on runways and flight decks.
One is managing the clutter of an aircraft carrier deck, especially the mixing of human and robotic pilots. As it is now, many aircraft carrier deck managers use models on a table to keep track of equipment and people. “It’s almost like a fun five-year-old game,” Cummings said.
To that end Cummings is helping develop a computer-powered, motion-capture camera system to help busy deck managers smooth the process. She thinks carriers and commercial airports will essentially become free of human meddling.
Aside from automating aircraft management, Cummings is also lending a robotic hand to farmers.
Tractors of today are crammed with state-of-the-art entertainment systems. “Why is that?” Cummings asked the audience. “It’s because it’s really boring. Let’s turn this over to the robot so that person can do something else.”
Cummings eventually showed a proprietary video supplied by John Deere of two driverless tractors spraying pesticides on a grove. Other experimental farms have robotic soil tillers and pilot-less helicopters dusting crops.
When Wired editor-in-chief and drone aficionado Chris Anderson asked when we might see these machines out in the fields, Cummings said “about 1 to 3 years.”
“We’re going to see UAVs in our everyday life to support the food we [eat]. We’re going to see this more and more in our own backyards,” she said. “The technology is pretty much ready to go. It’s just making connection to the business model. We’re on the cusp of that.”
Research Credit: JR
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