During a September flight test, the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned maritime reconnaissance aircraft experienced a problem with its engine, flew back to its base in California and landed within three feet of its target, Navy leaders said during a Feb. 14 panel at the West 2019 trade show in San Diego.

The incident, which reportedly caused more than $2 million in damage to the aircraft, is still under investigation, said Bryan Scurry, executive director of Naval Air Forces.

While the test result is not the outcome Navy leaders had hoped for, the fact that the unmanned tanker’s systems were able to recognize a problem and could return safely to Naval Base Ventura County Point Mugu may bring unexpected, long-term benefits. Primarily, the incident could help boost confidence in unmanned technology in the future, leaders said.

“On its own, autonomously … it did its own diagnosis and turned itself around, flew back to its base of origin, conducted its own fault analysis, conducted emergency procedures that resulted in a shut down of the engine, “ Scurry said. “The point being, it handled all these things as they popped up and still was able to come back and return to base in a pretty much intact position.”

While artificial intelligence is a relatively new technology and a small proportion of military users may have experience with it, the more often they see it in action, the more comfortable they will become.

In military panels and speeches on artificial intelligence, speakers inevitably refer to the fictional Terminator — though Scurry referred to characters from “Battlestar Galactica” — as a worst-case scenario of autonomy out of control. But their message at West 2019 was that artificial intelligence, or autonomy, is not always something to fear.

Cmdr. Edward Johnson, a requirements officer for the MQ-8 Fire Scout, an autonomous helicopter, said the Navy can take a lesson from the failure.

“The Triton example was a very dramatic one,” he said. “As these systems perform in these contingency autonomy modes, and perform as we expect them to, it helps to start building the trust these air vehicles will work, even if we’re not controlling them.”

Increasingly, Department of Defense leaders expect that unmanned vehicles may need to operate in environments where sailors or soldiers may not be able to take control because of limited communication.

Unmanned technology is becoming a larger part of the Navy’s plan for the future. During a keynote lunch session, James “Hondo” Geurts, the service’s assistant secretary for research and development and acquisition, began his speech with an image of SeaHunter, an unmanned surface vehicle first developed by the Defense Advanced Research Agency. In January, industry officials announced SeaHunter became the first unmanned ship to navigate from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Geurts applauded that feat.

In addition, on Feb. 13, the Navy awarded Boeing a $43 million fixed-price contract modification for the four Orca extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles. Boeing’s solution, the Echo Voyager, is a 51-foot vehicle that can go out to sea for months at a time.

“We’re continuing to look to see if that’s the only solution or if we want to keep looking at it,” Geurts told reporters after his speech.

Lockheed Martin also had submitted a bid for the vehicles.

Mike Gruss served as the editor-in-chief of Sightline Media Group's stable of news outlets, which includes Army Times, Air Force Times, C4ISRNET, Defense News, Federal Times, Marine Corps, Military Times and Navy Times.

More In West 2020