MIT Team Teaching English To Airplanes

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Imagine if you could talk to your airplane, issuing commands like "find the airport" or "fly the approach," and it would obey? Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on teaching an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to respond to English commands. "The system allows the pilot [who flies nearby in an F-15] to interface with the UAV at a high level -- not just 'turn right, turn left,' but 'fly to this region and perform this task,'" said Mario Valenti, a Boeing engineer who is on leave at MIT. "The pilot essentially treats the UAV as a wingman," said Valenti, comparing the UAV to a companion pilot in a fighter-plane squadron. While the UAV carries out dangerous missions at low altitudes, the F-15 pilot can maintain a safe altitude. In a flight test last summer, the UAV responded to sudden changes in plan and avoided unexpected threats en route to its destination, in real time, MIT said last week.

The new guidance system is designed for volatile combat situations. For instance, a pilot might be commanded to gather images of an enemy site located in unknown territory. Rather than flying into danger, the pilot could assign a nearby UAV to the task. The UAV moves toward the enemy site, avoiding known threats (no-fly zones) and the unexpected (radar emanating from a missile site), all the while communicating its actions to the pilot in the other aircraft, who follows behind at a higher altitude and a safe distance. The technology also could have applications in the coordination of multiple air or space vehicles, such as in air traffic control or the reconfiguration of distributed satellite systems, MIT said.