The Air Force has asked Professor David Castanon (ECE) to bring his expertise in signals and systems to bear as a member of the service’s Scientific Advisory Board. Castanon’s appointment to a two-year term on the board became official last month.
The 50-member board provides a link between the Air Force and the nation’s scientific community. It advises Air Force leadership on scientific and technical issues that may enhance the accomplishment of the service’s mission. The board includes members of the military, as well as scientists and engineers working in other areas of government, industry and academia.
Castanon said his area of expertise is of particular interest to the Air Force.
“In the long term, the Air Force wants 25 percent of its aircraft to be robotic,” he said. Although it has robotic aircraft now, operating them requires detailed programming and teams of humans on the ground to evaluate the torrent of information streaming from the aircraft’s sensors. Sifting through the data and deciding what, if any, action is needed can take days.
“There is a great interest in developing systems that can process
and evaluate information autonomously,” Castanon said. “We have an increasing capability of instruments to measure things accurately, but we don’t have the commensurate science that allows us to use them to their full potential.”
Castanon and the Air Force envision a day when a single human could supervise – rather than operate – a network of autonomous aircraft from the ground. By developing artificial intelligence capability in the aircraft, and linking them together, the aircraft could identify items of interest on the ground and relay only essential information to the human supervisor. The Air Force has an immediate use for such capability in Iraq, where roadside bombs pose a major hazard.
“Such an aircraft could detect a patch of disturbed earth at the side of the road and could relay that instantly to the supervisor, who could quickly act to stop vehicles from going past that spot,” he said.
Technology developed for the military has often found its way into civilian life and Castanon sees that happening here, too. “The military has a pressing need, but these types of distributed network systems have many applications,” Castanon said. Hospital monitoring and security systems are two applications that come quickly to mind. “Humanitarian de-mining could be conducted efficiently by robots without endangering humans,” he added.
But getting robotic vehicles to operate autonomously and interpret data pose continuing challenges. Castanon and others are working these problems using computational methods.
Although Castanon is involved directly in this research, his role on the Scientific Advisory Board will gravitate more toward evaluating the scientific opinions and approaches of others working on this and other issues. The panel also evaluates the work being conducted at the Air Force’s own laboratories, assesses their progress and makes suggestions.