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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Umanned vs. Manned

By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large

A few days ago, I was talking to some college aviation students of mine, when the subject of aircraft development came up. Since many of them are active-duty or contract personnel who work at the nearby naval air station, they’re pretty knowledgeable when it comes to some of the Navy’s newest flying machines.

“I think everything will be unmanned within the next three decades, said a retired master chief-turned civilian avionics contractor. “With the technology that’s out there now, the human pilot is becoming obsolete.”

We agreed that remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) have come a long way in the past few decades, and have “earned their wings,” so to speak, in various theaters of war. But then the conversation turned to civilian applications, which immediately begged the question: “Could RPVs make manned police helicopters obsolete?”

Various companies are now trying to peddle RPVs to law enforcement agencies, saying the initial acquisition and operating costs make them an excellent choice for police work. I’ve seen some really simple ones that weren’t much more than a $500 hobby- ist’s radio-controlled helicopter with a $300 still camera mounted on it, as well as some higher-end kinds that stickered out at $500,000 for a rotorcraft platform with digital downlink video. All of the vendors say their products can serve as alternatives—if not outright replacements—for million-dollar manned helicopters, plus they don’t need huge hangars and 5,000-gallon fuel trucks. But even the military, which has had tons of success with its RPVs in the war theater, haven’t begun pushing all aircrews out of the cockpit, yet.

Personally, I don’t think an RPV can replace a live police helicopter crew in all circumstances. There’s a lot to be said for the versatility and efficiency of the human eye, especially when it isn’t always exactly clear what you’re looking for. You have at least two sets of eyes scanning in 3-D, and, from what I’ve seen of civilian-quality RPVs, people can move their heads faster and more precisely than a remotely controlled camera. And let’s not forget that a civilian-quality RPV (emphasis on “civilian-quality”) can’t transport personnel to a remote location, haul people aboard during a search and rescue mission, or drop vital supplies during a disaster.

On the other hand, I saw a demonstration of an RPV where it went aloft over a mock civil disturbance. Having flown a couple of those myself, as many of you have, I know that orbiting the same piece of real estate for over an hour gets really old, really fast (provided you stay awake the whole time). Posting an RPV above an area where there is or may possibly be a disturbance seemed to work pretty well. And the longer it can remain on station, the more value and economy it offers. It worked well for grid searches, too.

Other than the lower cost, the big sales push I heard was that the RPV can be kept in a trailer—or even the back of an SUV, in the case of smaller units—and brought out as needed. The one I saw—when disassembled—could fit in the trunk of a car, and boasted a 15-minute prep time between arrival and launch, which in some cases will actually be longer than it takes to get a manned helicopter on station.

And speaking or arriving on the scene, the multimillion-dollar systems the military uses can fly hundreds of miles from where the operator is located, thanks to sophisticated communication links.

But the range of an RPV that’s affordable to the average police department won’t be able to go farther than a couple of miles from the base. So, that pretty much rules out running back-to-back calls over a wide area the way a helicopter can.

For now, I like the idea of both. Of course, very few jurisdictions have the kind of money to fly helicopters and operate an RPV, but I’ll bet that would be a nice combination. Are detectives trying to monitor a suspicious salvage lot? Park an RPV overhead to see over the fence. Got some protestors getting a little rowdy? Have the RPV send some real-time video.

Do you know what I’d like to see, though? I’d like to see a fly-off between an RPV and a manned helicopter! Have an officer hide deep in the woods, or maybe prowl a neighborhood in a panel truck. Then launch an RPV and a helicopter—one at a time, of course—to see who finds him in the shortest time. The loser buys the pizza!

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