This autonomous hierarchical functionality allows system failures to be recognized and compensated in real-time to carry out assigned objectives in rapidly changing, insecure, and dangerous environments. High-level autonomy of this kind – the level where a system uses AI and ML for “intelligent” decision-making – can correct operator errors, reduce on-the-job fatigue, and help make operations that use unmanned vehicles far more efficient and effective.

According to the Society of Automotive Engineers - SAE International, there are five levels of automation for vehicles ranging from no driving automation to full driving automation. Level 0 indicates no autonomy whatsoever, Levels 1 and 2 are still mostly under human control, but certain functions operate autonomously, and Level 5 is fully autonomous. Various factors are involved when deciding what level of autonomy is needed to carry out a particular mission or assignment. Still, most autonomous control systems in use today perform at Levels 3 and 4. Vehicles at this level can perform all critical operating functions but require a human to monitor and intervene if necessary. Research and development toward finding the perfect platform-agnostic, capability-centric Level 5 autonomous control systems continue unabated.

What are autonomous control systems used for?

Autonomous control systems are primarily broken out into five markets – Consumer, Military, Industrial/Business, Civil Services, and Space. It is important to note that these five markets do not just differ because of who uses them, they differ in their capabilities. These markets require specific functional capabilities to execute their mission or designated purpose. It is important to keep in mind that “unmanned vehicle” can mean an unmanned air vehicle (UAV), an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), unmanned surface vehicle (USV), or that can operate without human interference.

  • Autonomous control systems for consumers typically fall under Level 0: manually controlled. These systems require a human to perform all critical vehicle operations with systems in place to avoid no-go zones automatically, produce “obstacle ahead” warnings, or other sensor-activated functions would be Level 1 or 2.
  • The military’s use of autonomous systems offers significant tactical and strategic benefits to combat situations on the ground, in the air, and under the sea. The use of ACS continues to become more prominent as advancements in AI allow the systems to work faster, more precisely, and reliably. Continuous system implementation and training enable service members to develop trust and utilize system benefits such as improving and refining mission planning and decision-making capabilities.
  • Industrial/business drones are often used to inspect dangerous or remote environments, like mines, landfills, or sea platforms, and monitor and secure extensive, widespread facilities, such as ranches, oil refineries, chemical plants, and outdoor entertainment venues. Realtors, banks, and insurance companies use UAV to examine, photograph, and value residential and commercial properties. Two major growth areas in development that are using autonomous control systems in unmanned vehicles for business are the trucking industry and a range of advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles for both cargo and passenger uses.
  • Civil service use of unmanned vehicles is growing fast, especially as costs continue to fall, with fire departments, police departments, search and rescue operations, facilities inspectors, land management, park rangers, and more.
  • Unmanned space crafts are under human control with ACS assistance during initial launch and flight. Still, the robotic vehicles sent to Mars to roam around, collect samples, and perform tests are mostly operating autonomously because signals between Earth and Mars can often be unreliable.

Related topics to explore

Aircraft Electrification • Aerospace Robotics • Autonomous Controls Association • Autonomous Control and Decisions System • Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory • Autonomy Control and Estimation System • Control System Self-Governance • Control Theory • Data Synthesis for Autonomous Control Systems • Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Initiative • Intelligent Autonomous Controls • Intelligent Unmanned Systems • Smart Automation Systems • Tactical Networks


This information page is provided as a service to our readers by BAE Systems, Inc., a U.S.-based world leader in aerospace, defense, power, and intelligence solutions. Learn more about us here.

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