Warplanes: Unexpected Consequences of UAVs


July 3, 2006: While the U.S. Army has come to use its growing number of UAVs with great success, there have been negatives as well. For one thing, there are so many UAVs in the air, that the U.S. Air Force, which manages use of air space for all three services, has sometimes declared that even the smallest UAVs have to file flight plans. This usually means planning your UAV use 24 hours in advance. Ground combat commanders do not always have the luxury of 24 hours notice, and often find themselves calling for army helicopters or air force jets, already in the air, to please stop by and give them some top-down views of a ground battle in progress. These restrictions tend to be in effect only in busy areas like metropolitan Baghdad.

Another problem is visibility and noise, which makes it pretty obvious that there is a UAV overhead. This is mainly a problem with the RQ-7B Shadow UAVs, used by U.S. Army combat brigades. These 350 pound UAVs can stay in the air for up to six hours. Shadow UAVs average about a 120 hours in the air each month. assisting offensive operations (including raids), patrolling roads looking for IEDs, and watching areas where enemy activity is expected. It's while doing this last task that the noise becomes a factor, because the Shadow flies low enough to be heard, especially at night.

No such problem with the Raven UAV. What makes this little (4.2 pounds) bird so popular is its low cost ($25,000 each) and performance ( stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time). Better yet, the Raven is battery powered (and silent), and carries a color day vidcam, or a two color infrared night camera. Both cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a laptop computer. The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour, but usually cruises between 40 and 50. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller on the ground, and usually flies a preprogrammed route, using GPS for navigation.

Long term, the solution to the traffic congestion problem is a transponder in each UAV. Current transponders are too large and heavy to be practical in most Army UAVs. The Army is getting a larger UAV, the Warrior, in the next two years. Warrior is a variant of the famous Predator (used by the air force and CIA). Predator is large enough (the size of a single engine piloted plane) to carry a transponder. But in the meantime, the army has come to appreciate the new, high performance, targeting pods carried by air force and navy fighters. Aircraft targeting pods made their combat debut during the 1991 Gulf War, and were very successful. The pods, hung onto an aircraft like a missile or extra fuel tank, turn a fighter into an all-weather ground attack aircraft. The FLIR (a heat sensing vidcam) provides the pilot with live black and white video of what is on the ground, and makes possible precision attacks with missiles or smart bombs. But in the last fifteen years, the range and resolution of the FLIR has increased enormously. Current targeting pods enable pilots five kilometers away (above) to clearly make out armed men running around below. Such detail soon led to pod equipped pilots acting as aerial scouts for ground troops below. The pilot would spend far more time using his pod to look around, than to just locate a target and drop a bomb. So it was a natural move to provide the troops on the ground with the live feed from the FLIR. The pilots are happy to get involved, because otherwise they just circle overhead, waiting for troops on the ground to call for a smart bomb. The pilots are also of the video game generation, and find using their targeting pod simply a grown up version of what they did for kids. Except this time the explosions, and dead bodies, are real. As a result of all this, the jet fighters are regaining some of the work lost to UAVs. At least until UAVs all get transponders.




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