New test force focuses on autonomy

  • Published
  • By Kenji Thuloweit
  • 412th Test Wing Public Affairs
The 412th Test Wing has a new organization that will explore the Air Force warfighting capabilities of tomorrow.

The Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force was officially activated in early July and its mission is to provide agile, innovative flight test capabilities for emerging technologies.

“We’ve had various commercial and innovation projects coming in and we needed a way to manage all of them,” said Maj. Dan Riley, the Emerging Technologies CTF director. “There are new technologies that are not necessarily highly developed and are not yet operational, but may be coming down the pipe – things we may not be prepared for. The CTF will create test capabilities that do not currently exist and help eliminate strategic surprise to the 412th Test Wing.”

Riley said that an increasing number of upcoming test programs are below the scope of the current CTFs in the test wing. The existing CTFs are focused on “high-performance, high-dollar figure items.” The Emerging Technologies CTF is focused more in the thousands of dollars range.

Currently, the primary focus for the new CTF is autonomous systems. Riley said these are the big technologies coming in the near future and are in large demand from the Air Force because autonomous systems provide a tactical battlefield advantage and can help reduce manpower requirements.

“Our manpower is shrinking, and we already have requirements that are greater than our manpower will allow. Autonomous systems will help us alleviate that problem,” Riley said.

However, testing an aircraft that is “self-thinking” and “self-learning” poses its challenges.

“We don’t necessarily know how to test autonomous systems,” he said. “For example, I have a system that is supposed to survey an area over here. We expect, based on terrain and weather, it should take a certain route, but then it takes another route and we didn’t predict that. But is that okay? Maybe it is or maybe not. We (the CTF) have to come up with plans and regulations so I can tell the operations group commander, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to do, but it’s okay.’”

With the recent explosion of relatively inexpensive commercial and military unmanned aircraft systems being used, the new CTF will initially focus on small unmanned aircraft systems. The goal of the new test force is to develop test plans and regulations and to identify areas around Edwards Air Force Base for testing these systems. The CTF works with commercial partners, NASA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Air Force Civil Engineering and Air Force Security Forces Centers, who use SUAS in their missions.

Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration published rules regarding commercial and civilian use of unmanned aircraft. The FAA publication grants more access to users, but there are still restrictions. The CTF hopes to create mutual partnerships with commercial SUAS producers so both sides can benefit from testing at Edwards AFB.

“We want to learn from what they’re doing because the commercial companies are far ahead of what the (Defense Department) is doing. Our focus is bringing the test capability to Edwards and figuring out how to test SUAS. The reason people want to come here is our restricted airspace. We can do things here they can’t do with the FAA. The CTF will oversee safety procedures and planning,” Riley said.

The focus on SUAS coincides with the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan published April 30, which outlines the vision and strategy for the continued development, operation and sustainment of SUAS over the next 20 years for the Air Force. A large focus of the flight plan is autonomous systems.

According to Riley, “SUAS are the primary test bed for autonomous systems, and that is why we have the joint focus on both technologies.”

The first official test of the CTF is planned for the end of November. The project was brought to the CTF from the base innovation team and will involve a quadcopter fixed with a transmitter to see if the 412th Range Squadron can calibrate their telemetry equipment more efficiently by using a non-fixed antenna that is mobile and above ground, which will be the quadcopter.