This summer, the Navy's X-47B robotic combat jet will make aviation history. For the first time, an unmanned aircraft free from direct human control will guide itself onto the deck of a bucking aircraft carrier.
Autonomous flight is coming, but that doesn't mean it will replace all human pilots. It might just replace some of them. Over the past few years, the Pentagon has been developing a concept of robotic flight operations called the "loyal wingman." Under the supervision of a pilot or a remote operator, robotic wingmen could support human pilots. If so instructed, drones could do long-range reconnaissance or hold formation.
The Navy is already a few years into development of a unmanned jet, which is slated for service around 2020. And engineers in the Air Force are working on an optionally manned version of the stealth Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), which could be ready by the mid-2020s.
As tempting as it is to imagine these craft running their own long-range strikes, taking pilots out of harm's way, that's probably not going to happen. "The one mission that they're going to hold onto for a long time is visual ID, where we actually need to get a set of eyes on a potential target," says former Navy fighter pilot Mary Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics at MIT. Robotic sensors still can't combine the visual acuity of eyes and the rapid decision-making power of the human brain. They may have loyal robot wingmen at their sides, but pilots will be flying combat missions for a long time to come.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.