The wingman of the future many not be a man or a woman at all, but rather an unmanned aerial vehicle flying in tandem with a human-piloted aircraft.

The human will program in the mission goals, but the UAV will decide for itself how to get the job done.

“The software controls the actions and behaviors of the UAV; it controls the communication with the human pilot and it ensures the UAV can perform according to instructions,” said David W. Aha, the head of Adaptive Systems Section at the Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence, or NCARAI, at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

To anyone familiar with the complexity of combat aviation, this may sound like an unlikely scenario. In fact, the NCARAI team says it has demonstrated the viability of the idea, even though any real-world implementation remains some years away.

In a recent simulation, an expert pilot was teamed with a UAV under the control of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Tactical Battle Manager, the software system that could one day control UAVs. While the human pilot gave general mission instructions, the UAV was able to “think” through a series of behaviors, self-selecting mission objectives and responding to unexpected challenges and opportunities.

This type of autonomous “goal reasoning” has been a chief aim of the project since it launched in 2013, with planners looking to develop the algorithms that would allow a pilotless craft to carry out a designated mission, even if it should lose contact with its human operators. “If something unexpected occurs in the environment, it could change its goals midstream,” Aha said.

With increased reliance on UAVs comes the need for more sophisticated command-and-control systems. Once an unmanned plane is in play, it needs to be able to operate with some degree of autonomy, Aha said.

“We need an agent that can react to surprise,” he said. “What happens when the communications link is not working or the human operator is not available for some other reason? What if the [adversarial] red team’s strength is much higher or lower than was anticipated?”

In such a scenario, the UAV might be instructed to stick to a set goal — protect this defined airspace, for example — but it might have the autonomy to choose how it meets that goal, selected from a predefined set of maneuvers and operations.

“Theoretically, they could give an exact command, but when you fly an aircraft there is a lot going on and the commands can be very generic: Take targets three and four,” said Justin Karneeb, a software engineer with development partner Knexus Research Corp.

“There are ambiguities there, and when that happens you want a system that can fill in the gaps,” he said. “We want a system that flies the plane under the control of a human pilot but has the ability to identify other sub-goals as being more appropriate to pursue. It can recommend those to the pilot, and if the pilot is not accessible, it has the leeway to pursue these objectives.”

Some may say that pilotless warplanes conducting combat missions on their own instruction sounds like a recipe for disaster. Aha says the same safeguards that ensure smooth operations in human-piloted missions will keep the UAVs performing appropriately.

“Before a human pilot goes in the air there is a mission briefing, which we have replicated [in the software]. Once you are in the air there is a mission commander. That’s still true,” he said. “Maybe the mission briefing days you can only fire on targets that are pre-marked by your commander: Your hands are tied. So, the system has these same varying levels of constraints that are meant to mimic the constraints you would give a human.”

This remains for now a far-future capability. Planners are developing sophisticated situational awareness tools that will allow UAVs to combine sensor data with human input in order to recognize and interpret changes in the battlespace. They also are looking at ways to engage the aviation community in what will seem to many as a radical departure from the typical forms of engagements.

“A good part of the project is working with the human, how much a given pilot wants to trust the system,” Aha said, “I think it is viable at some point, but it will have to be in a highly constrained manner in terms of what the UAV will be allowed to do.”