Warplanes: May 10, 2004

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UAVs (Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles) are a hot item in the United States Department of Defense, and the brass are trying to address some of the problems that come with such success. The major problem is that there are more than a dozen UAV models in use, and even more in development. There is lots of overlap in capabilities. This means that some services are scraping by with older, less capable models (like the Armys Hunter), while another service has a better model of the same class (like the Air Force Predator.) So the Department of Defense is encouraging (and may order) the services to adopt the best model of each class and standardize on it. This means a lot of wasted development money would instead go towards buying more UAVs, which the troops are anxious to get. 

At the moment there are perhaps five classes of UAV. At the low end there are the under-ten pound mini-UAV used by Special Forces teams and infantry companies. These are launched by hand (you throw them after you start the battery powered propeller). There are many of these around, because they are cheap to develop using off the shelf technology. These have a range of a few kilometers, endurance of an hour or two and everything (disassembled UAV, ground control gear) can be carried by one soldier. The Department of Defense doesnt really mind all the development going on here, because its cheap and ideas are being developed that can be applied to larger UAVs. The oldest, and most successful UAV in this class is the Pointer. But this one weighs nine pounds, and is facing competition by lighter ones. However, Pointer remains popular because of the wind problem. All mini-UAVs are difficult to use when the winds are over 20 kilometers an hour, or very variable. So the heavy Pointer has an edge here over the newer sub-five pound UAVs. This class of UAVs cost a few thousand dollars each, although current models cost several times that because of development costs. But once enough of them are manufactured to support all infantry and armor units, the price will come down.

Somewhat more expensive to develop are the micro-UAVs that weigh a few ounces, are basically little helicopters and would be used by small groups of soldiers to check out buildings, caves, or whats around the corner and down the street. These have been demonstrated, but are not ready for field use yet. The first useable models of these will be very expensive, possibly costing over $100,000 each because of high development costs. It difficult getting something that small built to be robust enough to survive in a combat in a combat zone.

The next class of UAVs are best described as light UAVs, and weight from 200-600 pounds. The U.S. Army has recently introduced the Shadow 200, a 330 pound UAV for combat brigades. With a range of fifty kilometers and six hours endurance, they are actually able to stay in the air longer than helicopters, and at no risk to pilots. This class of UAV is expected to replace reconnaissance helicopters which currently support the brigades. These UAVs cost one or two million dollars each. But they are replacing helicopters that cost more than ten times that. 

For a long time, the only class of UAV was the one or two ton model, which was basically the same size and weight as a two seat, single engine commercial aircraft. For decades the army had used similar aircraft for reconnaissance and directing artillery fire. But then the Predator came along, with GPS, satellite communications and better cameras (especially night vision models.) The Predator can stay in the air up to 40 hours and has a max take off weight of 2100 pounds. This type of aircraft is perfect for divisions or larger units. The U.S. Army is using the older Hunter design. Roughly the same size as Predator, it can stay in the air up to 24 hours. The army may just switch to Predator (which the U.S. Air Force developed) for the sake of standardization, and because it is a better UAV.

Finally, there are the large UAVs, like Global Hawk. These UAVs can basically fly intercontinental missions, and are very expensive ($30 million each and up). But a lot of the cost of a Global Hawk is in the sensors (radars, cameras and the like) and other electronics (satellite communications, flight control computer and software.) The sensors are expensive because they are very sensitive. Global Hawk is like a low flying space satellite in that it has the ability to pick up a tremendous amount of detail on the ground. Global Hawk has been so successful that the navy is looking at using it for maritime patrol, a task for which Global Hawk is well suited for. This UAV has already crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans using its internal flight control software. You cant ask much more of a maritime patrol aircraft. 

The Pentagon is also aware of several other common UAV problems. For one thing, the flight control software has a way to go yet. The accident rate for UAVs is more than ten times that of manned aircraft. While some of that is unavoidable, because so many UAVs are actually lightweight (and thus more vulnerable) aircraft, but a lot of it has to do with software that is not as smart (about difficult flying conditions) as it could be. Another problem is that UAVs are not bulletproof, and the tendency to send them into areas you would not send a manned aircraft, or helicopter, results in more losses. Some of this could be avoided by installing jammers to deceive enemy search radars. The smaller UAVs are actually pretty quiet, and thus hard to spot by enemy troops who could, if they knew they were up there, bring the UAV down with a lot of machine-gun fire. 

The Department of Defense also wants UAVs built with common communications systems, so they can talk to each other and, in the right situations, work together.

The success of UAVs in the last few years, after decades of development, and many failures, has made UAVs very popular with the users. The troops want more of them, lots more of them. The Pentagon wants to comply, but knows that if the spendthrift ways of former UAV development return, there wont be much money left to actually built the aircraft. So the crunch is on. Keep it simple, keep it down to a few models, keep it cheap and build as many as possible. 

 


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