The Future

Issue: 08-2013By Air Marshal (Retd) Anil ChopraPhoto(s): By USAF

Till now, deployed mostly for military and special operations, UAVs are now increasingly employed for civil applications such as policing and firefighting too

The earliest operational unmanned aircraft were actually guided weapons—the World War II German V-bombs. Pilotless aircraft were also tested during that war, but the state of technology at that time did not support meaningful operational missions. Initial drones were more for training gunners and had no operational role. As autopilot and navigation technology advanced, the use of unmanned aircraft became more prevalent. Shooting down of the American U-2 spy plane by Russians unfolded a full-scale development of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme. UAVs saw fledgling action in Vietnam. Israel pioneered the use of UAVs for real-time surveillance, electronic warfare and decoys during Bekka valley operation in 1982. The US industry worked closely with Israeli Aerospace Industry’s Malat Division to develop the US Navy’s ‘Pioneer’ UAV for use in the 1991 Gulf War.

UAVs in Action

UAVs shot into fame during the Iraq War over a decade ago and their recent successful operational employment in Afghanistan has given them a permanent place in the sky. The use of unmanned aircraft in the field of intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) has resulted in the development of sophisticated payloads for UAVs. Combined with command and control capability and a means for transmitting data/video from the vehicle, it became a potent platform. Varying in size weighing just from a few ounces to the size of an airliner, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are fulfilling a variety of missions beyond ISR. Removing the pilot out of a combat air vehicle reduces weight, cost and human risk factor considerably as also results in phenomenal increase in endurance. These provide great surveillance and targeting capability at very low cost. The sexists had questioned the term UAV and so evolved the terms ‘Drone’, remotely piloted vehicles (RPV), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or even uninhabited aerial systems. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) prefer retention of the word ‘aircraft’ so that same regulations could be applicable. While the largest operator, the US military, continues to call it UAS, it is willing to switch to the term RPA.

An UAS consists of the air vehicle controlled autonomously or remotely by a controller, sensors/payloads, command and control data links, operators’ station ground support equipment required for launch/recovery, operations and maintenance. Deployed mostly for military and special operations, UAVs are now increasingly employed for civil applications such as policing and firefighting. Armed UAVs or unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) such as the General Atomics Predator equipped with AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, have pushed the envelope to a new level. The Predator is remotely-piloted via satellites by operators located as far as 12,000 km away. On the other hand, the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk operates virtually autonomously and only needs a command to ‘take-off and land’. Man in the loop (piloted) and man on the loop (supervised) systems are the two options. Advances in technology are enabling more capabilities and small unmanned aircraft systems are being deployed on the battlefield. The UAS’ roles have expanded to areas including electronic warfare, strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defence, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue and combinations of these.

Increasing Capability and Numbers

UAVs are today used by more than 50 countries, with many making their own. USA is the leader with the US armed forces reportedly having 850 operational UAVs and unknown quantities of small hand-held units which is more than the combined strength of the rest of the world. As per a US Congressional Research report dated January 3, 2012, the United States has 7,494 UAS systems as against 10,767 manned aircraft. The Department of Defense spending on UAS increased from $284 million ( Rs. 1,704 crore) in financial year 2000 to $3.3 billion ( Rs. 19,800 crore) in financial year 2010. During theatre-level operations in Afghanistan, UAVs flew nearly 2,00,000 hours a year. Predators alone carried out over 3,000 missions a year. Miniature UAVs could be a few millimetres in size and be used to monitor inside rooms. Most UAVs are fixed-wing aircraft, but rotary-winged UAVs (RUAV) such as MQ-8B Fire Scouts, are also in use. There is a trend to convert fighter aircraft for dual use, both as manned and unmanned variant. More and more civil applications such as remote sensing, forestry and land management, coastal policing, use for logistic operations by Fedex and UPS, environment monitoring, etc are becoming popular.

Manned aircraft still get over 90 per cent of the defence funding. UAVs are more accident prone but overall cost in life and equipment is much less. The UAVs are bandwidth hogs. Global Hawks require nearly 500 megabytes per second. The USAF UAS vision 2030 document predicts that every conceivable aircraft role could be handled by the UAS fleet including that of airlift, airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) and counter air strikes. Is the airborne community worried that they will soon be out of the cockpit? Read more about it in Forum.