Warplanes: May 12, 2005

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Wartime is also rapid development time for new technologies. One system getting the accelerated development treatment in the current war is robots, especially the flying ones. UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are also developing a new name; UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems.) Thats a minor point, the important thing is that hundreds of UAVs have been in combat, and the troops want more of them. 

There have been problems, the main one being that the robots are not nearly as bright as the troops that use them. Some 80 percent of the UAV losses are due to operational causes (weather, operator error, equipment losses), not enemy action. The onboard navigation software is not nearly as clever or quick as a human pilot, and an operator on the ground is not always able to correct bad moves by the UAV software. 

The most popular, and most common, UAVs are the micros. These weigh under ten pounds and are used by the troops who are doing the fighting. The larger UAVs, usually controlled by the air force, are great when they are available. But the troops would rather have their own. No matter how hard the air force tries, they are still another organization, with goals and tactics that do not always work well with what the army is trying to do. 

As more UAVs get into use, they are actually interfering with each other, at least electronically. There are dozens of different models in use, and some use the same radio frequencies. This has caused some accidents, as UAVs with a stronger signal overwhelm others, and cause loss of control. There have also been some collisions, usually with small UAVs running into larger aircraft, or getting thrown out of control by the backwash of larger aircraft. 

These problems will eventually be worked out as some standardization comes to military UAVs, But at the moment, the wartime try anything rules are in effect. This is causing a major battle between the air force, which want control of all UAV development, and the other services. The air force is being told to back off. Common standards can be agreed upon without giving the air force control of all UAV development. What the air force is afraid of is losing a lot of turf. The more UAVs the army uses, the less they need anything from the air force. Of course, the army has been doing that for decades, as can be seen in the thousands of transport and attack helicopters the army uses. The air force has long since given up trying to get these away from the army. But the air force sees an opportunity with UAVs to control everything that files (without a pilot, anyway). The other services want UAVs that do what they want done, and want to develop them themselves to make sure they get what they want. This argument is bolstered by the increasing flood of new technologies. Adding another layer of bureaucracy (the air force) would only slow things down. This particular battle is expected to be settled by the end of the year.

The army is using UAVs so heavily that the aircraft are becoming a standard bit of equipment in small units. While everything is improvised now, its clear that before long every infantry company will have UAVs issued to it. The UAVs are becoming simpler to operate, true robots. Many combine laptop based software,  with onboard software that does most of the flying. The ground troops want a UAV that can just be snapped together (most micro-UAVs are made of some form of plastic like material) by the operator. Check the battery and run a self-test on the onboard computer, turn it on, and throw it. The operator with the laptop, which is attached to a radio antenna to communicate with the UAV, marks way points for UAV on a map of the area and then turns on the video feed. Many company commanders will then view the video, and radio instructions to their troops in response to what the UAV sees. In less than three years, UAVs have become this simple, and thats the kind of simplicity you need in a combat zone. These micro-UAVs are expendable. Most are not expected to survive for more than twenty or so missions. Resupply being what it is, the troops have learned to improvise, nursing busted up UAVs so they can do a few more missions. This means scavenging parts to keep them going, or making unofficial repairs and modifications. The troops really want the kind of information the micro-UAVs can provide, as it is often a matter of life and death. 

 


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