Missy Cummings: Drone Advocate

This former fighter pilot wants automated systems to take the stick

21 February 2014

For more than a decade, IEEE Senior Member Missy Cummings had one of the most difficult and dangerous tasks in the military—landing a U.S. Navy plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. She was one of the first female fighter pilots and among the Navy’s top aviators, but over time she realized that automated systems were becoming better and more accurate at flying and landing airplanes than the pilots.

In 1999 she left the Navy and decided to join academia. Today she is the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., where she builds interfaces for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, that have several applications, including searching for and monitoring endangered animals and flying into dangerous areas to deliver supplies. With the announcement by Amazon that it is working on a propeller-driven drone delivery system for packages, The Institute interviewed Cummings, a drone advocate, about their other potential applications as well as what life was like as a female fighter pilot, what turned her on to drones, and where we might start to see them in everyday life.

cummings Photo: Duke University

What inspired you to become a pilot, and when did you begin flying for the Navy?

I was inspired by my father, who was a Navy airplane mechanic, as well as the movie Top Gun. I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy (in Annapolis, Md.) in 1988 and started flying for the Navy that year.

What was it like to be one of the few female fighter pilots?

It was tough to be the only woman in a male-dominated warrior culture. Even though it’s been 20 years since the repeal of the combat exclusion law, which banned women from flying in combat missions, the military in general still cannot get more women in these positions. I think the military is generally ahead of the business sector in terms of advancement of women, but not enough women are enlisting.

What sparked your interest in drones and UAVs?

When I was flying in the Navy, I was amazed at how well computer systems helped land the planes on an aircraft carrier. Takeoffs in the F/A-18 Hornet single-seat fighter jet were also almost completely computer-driven. There is no question that automation has made flying planes, especially in the military, much safer.

Drones are also substantially cheaper to operate than their manned equivalents. I wanted to investigate automated systems and drones because I believe drones will find many other applications, such as cargo delivery, crop dusting—already being done in Japan—and rescue missions, especially as they gain public acceptance and funding in the United States.

What is it like to fly “hands-off,” relying mainly on automated systems? What does this mean for the future of pilots?

Today’s fighter pilots often land on the aircraft carrier manually because they still want to feel they are in control—but the computer always does it better. While most pilots don’t like the “hands-off” feeling, they could not perform missions in a fighter jet like the F/A-18 without a computer.

On commercial planes, pilots essentially monitor highly automated systems. Often, the pilot never touches the controls from takeoff to landing. In 5 to 10 years, cargo planes will be flown by automated systems without a person in the cockpit. With automated onboard systems as well as oversight by people on the ground, such drones would handle several kinds of issues that may arise during a flight, including inclement weather, computer glitches, and emergency detours. However, I doubt that we will ever truly have drone commercial passenger planes because there needs to be an authority figure to maintain control in the face of terrorists or, more commonly, unruly passengers. Additionally, passengers tend to feel safer with a person in the cockpit.

Aside from aviation, in what other ways can drones help military personnel stay safe and carry out missions?

Within the next decade, medical evacuation missions will be conducted with drones. And the U.S. Marines have already launched the K-Max program, which uses unmanned helicopters to deliver emergency cargo and supplies to people on the ground.

Where else will we start to see drones in our everyday lives?

In countries outside of the United States, drones are already used for several commercial applications. For example, in Japan, drones make up more than 90 percent of all crop dusters. In England, one restaurant is using a drone to bring food to its tables. Dubbed the iTray, the four-propeller flying waiter is outfitted with a flat top to carry plates and is controlled by a nearby waiter with an iPad. And last August, organizers of the OppiKoppi music festival, in Northam, South Africa, tested small, eight-propeller drones that delivered cold beer to attendees based on the GPS location of their smartphone.

Drones make tracking endangered animals easier and safer than current methods, and are critical for anti-poaching efforts worldwide. They are also revolutionizing agriculture by giving farmers real-time access to information about the health of their crops. Drones also have been used to track lost hikers. [Several dozen local police departments, federal agencies, and universities have been granted special Federal Aviation Administration permits to fly drones in U.S. airspace.]

In the more distant future, we may see robotic airborne ambulances that can land in inclement weather and in places like mountaintops that are extremely dangerous or nearly impossible for rescuers to reach.

What are the biggest risks or drawbacks to replacing people with drones in some capacities?

Humans are still superior to computers for knowledge-based reasoning—situations where one might be required to “think outside the box.” The challenge in the future, then, will be to develop more symbiotic systems that allow robots and humans to seamlessly work together as a team.

For example, in the future, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) may ride in airborne ambulances and tell the aircraft’s automated system where to go, how critical the mission is in terms of risk, and any special considerations for the injured person on board. In this scenario, the EMT would be both the onboard medic and the pilot, without needing extensive flight training. This would allow the EMT to do his or her job more efficiently and potentially more quickly, which is critical in a situation where seconds count.

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