Since the first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, airplanes have always needed pilots. Even drones are remotely controlled by a human being.
But a Pittsburgh-area company is laying the groundwork for the technology that will create autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—essentially, pilotless aircraft guided by artificial intelligence—in the not-too-distant future.
Ansys, a Canonsburg-based engineering simulation and embedded software company, is partnering with Airbus Defence and Space, the military arm of the European aviation giant, to develop the software necessary to turn autonomous UAVs into a reality by 2030.
The Airbus UAVs will be part of Europe’s Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS), which includes both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles. The FCAS program aims to combine the UAVs with a manned sixth-generation fighter jet that serves as the central control hub for the autonomous vehicles.
Companies such as Airbus use Ansys’ SCADE tool to develop the embedded code that controls and guides real-world products. SCADE is able to produce the code up to 50 percent faster than human engineers, saving time and resources. Airbus has been using Ansys products for roughly 20 years, according to Kara Gremillion, Ansys’ lead product marketing manager for systems.
“We are leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to help [our customers] with how they interact with the software to help set up the models in the most appropriate way based on the type of results they’re looking for,” said Rob Harwood, Ansys’ global industries director.
Until now, SCADE has generated embedded code to control things like cockpit displays or landing gear. The new project aims to introduce AI and machine learning into the system itself and automatically generate safe code for AI-based controllers, which is “changing the game,” according to Gremillion.
“You have a variable that can change within that code,” Gremillion said. “There can be different variables that affect the behavior of that system… we are going to work with Airbus to enable SCADE to understand how to handle these variables.”
Certification of machine learning and AI systems requires advanced processes and next-generation development tools, and SCADE is providing them, Gremillion said.
Ansys’ work in those fields echoes the Western Pennsylvania tech boom fueled in large part by world-class research facilities and institutions like Carnegie Mellon University, with which Ansys maintains a strong collaborative relationship. Last year, ANSYS Hall opened as part of CMU’s College of Engineering.
“A lot of what we do there is driven by these types of collaborations, and by being successful with the likes of Airbus, it gives us the fiscal ability to invest in relationships with leading local research institutions like CMU,” Harwood said.