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What might a riderless conveyance do? DARPA and Martin Marietta, which built the $900,000 prototype, say it could develop into a tank, a reconnaissance vehicle or a carrier of supplies. But while the Pentagon hopes to have an ALV model that can execute complex maneuvers and travel 25 m.p.h. by the 1990s, the technical obstacles remain enormous. The machine's vision system alone will require a data processor that can handle nearly 10 billion instructions a second, or about ten times more than current supercomputers. Today's less nimble ALV confuses shadows and logs, wobbles as it approaches gates and gets mixed up at intersections. Says Martin Marietta's Lloyd Thane, a deputy project manager: "Sometimes it has a mind of its own, like any infant learning new things."
THE PILOT'S ASSOCIATE. For all the sophistication of modern aircraft, their cockpits can be a bewildering array of hundreds of gauges, switches and knobs. "The demands have far outpaced the capacity of pilots to deal with them," says Robert Kahn, chief of the DARPA information processing division. To ease the burden, the agency has launched a multimillion-dollar project to produce a jet that responds to voice and eye control.
Now under development at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the experimental fighter recognizes 200 verbal commands ranging from orders to drop bombs to instructions to change radio frequencies. The jet, which will take off for the first time this summer, even talks back to the pilot to show that it understands. When fully equipped, the cockpit of the future will allow a flier to aim weapons simply by looking at a target. Laser beams will then trace his eye movements and instruct a computer where to point the craft's guns.
TRANSATMOSPHERIC VEHICLE. A more advanced aircraft, the TAV would take off horizontally like a conventional plane and then zoom through the atmosphere into space. It could climb to roughly 100 miles, about half the altitude of the most recent space shuttle flight but at least five times the height attainable by standard jets, and orbit at a speed of 17,500 m.p.h. From its lofty perch, the aircraft would serve as a surveillance platform, or an antisatellite weapon, before returning to earth and landing like a plane.
DARPA has its sights on numerous other projects. Among them: night-vision goggles that will enable helicopter pilots to fly in near total darkness; a computerized system that will provide a commander with an instantaneous picture of the battlefield and suggest possible moves he might take. But those devices, like all DARPA'S weaponry, are still little more than sophisticated tools. Once in combat, even Buck Rogers had to think for himself. --By John Greenwald. Reported by Bruce van Voorst/Washington