Today one aerial vehicle reigns above all others in grabbing the news headlines on almost a weekly basis: the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). These pilotless planes, or drones, are being used in an ever-growing range of roles, with national militaries now ﬁelding vast remote-controlled squadrons across all theaters of war.
You only have to look at images of the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, a combat-centered UAV considered one of the most advanced hunter killer aircraft ever built, and it’s not hard to see why some have claimed that drone technology is something to be feared. Indeed, as its name would suggest, the Reaper specialises in long-endurance, high-altitude strikes at enemy targets with a variety of armaments, including a combination of highly accurate AGM-114 Hellﬁ re missiles and GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs. However this militarization of UAV tech and the frequent bad press it gets fails to give credit to its many other applications, and arguably shrouds its true importance in the future of aviation, which is seeing incredibly successful results across all current ﬁelds.
Just to take one example out of many, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently uses the Aerosonde UAV as a hurricane hunter and weather monitor. The reason? Because this drone is an incredibly advanced piece of kit more than capable of out-sensing and outperforming any manned aircraft in the role of collecting atmospheric data. Indeed, the Aerosonde is able to record temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity and wind measurements over oceans and remote areas with ease, remaining airborne up to a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles), at an altitude of 4,500 metres (15,000 feet) and a speed of 148 kilometers (92 miles) per hour. This performance is delivered through the partnership of the Aerosonde’s modiﬁed Enya R120 engine and sleek, aerodynamic chassis – while its endurance is guaranteed by the lack of human pilot. In fact, prior to the use of drones as weather monitors and early warning systems, many lives were lost or endangered when piloted aircraft were brought down by bad weather. The arrival of drones such as the Aerosonde has removed that risk.
Uses of Drones
Indeed, what is not reported is that today, UAVs are used in many useful, non-military applications , ranging from ﬁghting forest ﬁres to saving trapped civilians from disaster zones, and all without further endangering human life. The speed, agility and reconnaissance capabilities far outstrip those of any single human, and their deployment is seeing ever greater success across all ﬁelds.
So, why the hostility? Admittedly, the notion of a computer-controlled aircraft, which if militarized could carry high explosive weapons, is a daunting one, but when you start to consider that these aircraft are the product of the most advanced aviation companies, with each dedicating many of their best teams to their creation – you have to question whether those concerns are justiﬁed. In fact, a quick browse of the world’s top plane manufacturers, be it the British BAE Systems, the American General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, or the French Dassault Aviation, shows each is pouring its most bleeding-edge technology into researching and developing UAVs. Dassault Aviation, for example, is currently building a drone aircraft, nicknamed the ‘nEUROn’. It’s cloaked, has a delta wing design and is capable of hitting a top speed of 980 kilometres (608 miles) per hour. It is, in many respects, as advanced as today’s most competent manned aircraft. However, the nEUROn’s main purpose is not to enter production, but to trial out technology and – critically – safety features which can then be adopted into future production aircraft. This trend of stringent testing of UAVs and potential technology is at the forefront of the industry; the nEUROn did not ﬂy when displayed at the 2013 Paris Air Show as it’s not yet cleared to ﬂ y in civilian airspace – something that will likely only happen after all its ﬂight trials in late-2015.
In fact, UAV aircraft are among the safest and most advanced on the planet, with many of their technologies pioneering and, importantly, readily transferable to other vehicles. Today, UAVs are fairly small machines, but in the future, thanks to their autopilot systems now being more advanced than any other aircraft due to state-of-the-art R&D efforts, larger pilotless cargo or even passenger aircraft could be built, with faster, more frequent ﬂights possible, and with far less chance of human error. What’s more, it’s not just future drone aircraft that will beneﬁ t from UAV development, but traditional piloted aircraft bound to see many upgrades too. Despite increasing numbers of drones set to be used over the next 50 years, there will naturally still remain a huge demand for piloted aircraft. With the help of sensory, communication and autopilot systems delivered by drone technology, these ﬂights will be achieved more efﬁ ciently and with greater safety than ever before.
Just because the history of unmanned aerial vehicles is largely militarised, with efforts to create a drone aircraft beginning as far back as World War I, that does not mean its future has to be. The wider air industry needs to evolve rapidly if it is to keep pace with the everincreasing population’s travel needs, and for that, drones are a key component.
If UAVs are the future of ﬂight, then a clear roadmap needs to be laid down for their development. Currently, UAVs are split into six functional categories including target and decoy, reconnaissance, combat, logistics, research and development, and commercial, with the latter only being granted a license to operate in most nations’ airspace on a case-bycase basis. This limited form of categorisation is ﬁ ne to a point, but as the number of drone aircraft and their applications increase, more reﬁned and ﬂexible criteria will have to be set.
For example, government use today largely revolves around emergency services, such as ﬁre brigades using drones to detect forest ﬁres – but as more and more services enter the private sector, then laws – like the ones slowly emerging for driverless cars – will need to be amended to account for the fact that many future vehicles will not have a pilot on board. This sort of change needs to be partnered with greater monitoring over private UAV manufacturers, as with great technology comes greater responsibility and accountability. While certain UAVs are being scaled up, others are going the other way, with some experimental models even launchable by hand like a paper plane (like the RQ-11 Raven). If this sort of cutting-edge development continues, then soon UAVs might not just be carrying weapons, cameras and disaster relief, but performing more everyday tasks. That said, it will probably be some time yet before drones are delivering your weekly food shop.
Currently, military contractor Boeing is retroﬁtting retired F-16 ﬁghter jets with equipment that allows them to be ﬂ own remotely as a UAV. The jets, which have been obsolete for 15 years, were chosen due to their excellent handling characteristics and small radar proﬁle. Early tests saw the ﬁ rst of these drone F-16s attaining speeds north of Mach 1.47 and successfully completing a series of complex maneuvers. The reason for the conversion of the F-16s, which from now on will be designated QF-16s, is to create a ﬂ eet of mission-capable unmanned vehicles that can be used to help train pilots and act as dummy targets for live ﬁ re tests. Currently, only six of these drone QF-16s are operational, but due to the programme’s success, a production schedule is pencilled in to begin in late 2013, with the aircraft ready for deployment by 2015.
Drones to watch
Followings are some latest and most exciting drones;
Technically referred to as a UCAV, an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, BAE Systems’ Taranis is an experimental drone currently undergoing trials in the UK. The project is led by BAE, but also involves Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation Systems, QinetiQ and the British Ministry of Defence (MoD). The prototype cost £143 million ($230 million) to develop and is designed with fully autonomous elements in mind, though a trained operator will always be in control on the ground.
Phantom Eye The Boeing-made Phantom Eye is a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV designed by the defence contractor’s secretive Phantom Works. It’s powered by liquid hydrogen and has been designed as a spy plane, remaining in ﬂight at high altitude for several days without having to return to a base station. The Phantom Eye recently reached an altitude of 8,530 metres (28,000 feet) and remained there for four and a half hours while carrying a payload from the Missile Defense Agency.
A lightweight solar-powered UAV that currently holds the official record for an unmanned aerial vehicle – spending 336 hours and 22 minutes airborne without landing – the QinetiQ Zephyr is an experimental drone designed to explore the possibilities of solar-powered UAVs. Made from carbon ﬁbre, the Zephyr uses harvested sunlight to charge a lithiumsulphur battery, which in turn powers a permanent-magnet synchronous motor.
The Tempest is an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) designed for in-situ sensing and observation of severe storms and supercell thunderstorms. The aircraft is launched manually via radio control and is switched to autonomous mode once airborne, where it then operates via autopilot within a designated airspace region. Atmospheric data gathered by Tempest is then streamed back to a mobile base station for processing, with any early warnings instantly shared.