Pardon this rather seditious inquiry, but on how many missions do we really need pilots? They probably are needed on most missions–for now. But that may change soon.
At the flight line of this year’s Paris Airshow, one saw the familiar array of commercial and military aircraft. But tucked among the parked fighters, bizjets and transport aircraft was a surprising number of unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs. The United States, France, Russia and Israel, to name just a few UAV-developing countries, displayed their wares.
Once called "drones" and used almost exclusively for reconnaissance and as targets for live weapons training, UAVs have become multimission craft bearing a plethora of electronics. Which is why we have decided to publish in Avionics Magazine a two-part series on UAV systems and missions. This month, we cover UAV activity in North America (page 32); next month we will present a European perspective on the topic.
For obvious reasons, these versatile vehicles have drawn broad support among militaries around the world. Obvious because UAVs generally cost less to purchase and operate than manned aircraft, and they can reduce the potential loss of crew. Also, they will take on any task within their performance limits, no matter how dirty or dangerous.
Ranging in size from a ballpoint pen with wings to an F-16 fighter, UAVs are ideal for battlefield reconnaissance and naval over-the-horizon surveillance. U.S. and European forces have used them extensively over Kosovo and Macedonia.
The larger variants can shoulder payloads initially developed for manned aircraft. Saab Technologies, for example, plans to develop a UAV that will carry the Ericsson Erieye phased array radar, now fitted to aircraft like the Saab 340.
The U.S. Air Force, Swedish forces, and other military services look at UAVs as possible combat aircraft that can carry weaponry ranging from laser energy to bombs. In March at a Nevada test range, the General Atomics Predator UAV fired a Hellfire air-to-ground missile and destroyed a tank. European developers of UAVs talk of arming these vehicles with new hypersonic missiles.
UAVs can reach altitudes higher than 65,000 feet and speeds near Mach 3. As for endurance, Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4A Global Hawk recently flew non-stop for 23 hours, from the United States to Australia.
UAVs come in all varieties, too. There exist both fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAVs as well as ducted-fan, vertical takeoff and landing, and even flapping wing vehicles. Also, the U.S. Air Force, NASA and Boeing are jointly developing a second-generation reusable launch vehicle, the X-37. It would have a Honeywell navigation, guidance and control package–but, unlike the Space Shuttle, no humans on board.
Small wonder, then, that UAVs garner so much support among militaries. Former U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) predicts that within a decade, one-third of the U.S. deep strike aircraft will be unmanned. The Teal Group projects an annual UAV market of up to $300 million over the next decade. A Rockwell Collins official foresees the UAV market becoming a $42.2-billion industry by 2008, growing 20 times over a 10-year period.
The market probably will become much larger years later, when a commercial market is developed. The telecommunications industry holds a keen interest in UAVs as long-endurance platforms for broadband transponders. Law enforcement, agriculture, firefighting, aerial photography/filmmaking, environmental monitoring are just a few additional candidates for UAV use.
There exist, incidentally, two organizations representing the UAV industry: the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in Arlington, Va., (www.auvsi.org) and the European Unmanned Vehicle Systems Association, based in The Netherlands (www.euro-uvs.org).
The U.S. military has deployed unmanned air reconnaissance vehicles since the early 1960s over Cuba and Vietnam. Yet the widespread application of UAVs faces hurdles–one being their integration into commercial airspace. Air traffic controllers are understandably concerned about vehicles that can elude their communications and control entering their airspace. Since UAVs can be quite large, collision avoidance is an issue.
One industry official told me that Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) could provide the UAVs over-the-horizon data to help prevent an air-to-air mishap. But no one system will assure conflict avoidance within a short range, he told me. That will require a "layered approach," using multiple systems on UAVs.
Other challenges exist for the UAV industry; for example, the integrity of the ground-to-air-vehicle communications link. Nevertheless, with advances in miniaturized processing and in wideband comunication, the future for UAVs appears limitless–leaving us to wonder how many missions will be left for pilots to perform.