In October 2015 Britain finally overcame opposition by civil aviation bureaucrats and was allowed to fly military UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in Britain. Just once. As a test. This was a major breakthrough because such restrictions in Europe have severely limited development and use of military UAVs. For example the British military has been developing Watchkeeper UAV since 2006 but has not been able to use it in Britain. This aircraft is based on the Israeli Hermes and is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of 150 kg. It can also carry Hellfire missiles for support of troops in Afghanistan. This UAV is already designed to carry two extra fuel tanks under its wings. Each of these fuel tanks weighs more than the 50 kg (110 pound) Hellfire missile. The Watchkeeper is 6.5 meters (20 feet) long and has an 11.3 meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). The Hermes 450 is the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces, and twenty or more were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon.
As of late 2015 Britain had received 33 of the 54 Watchkeepers ordered but did not have any pilots for them. That’s because doubts about getting permission to fly in Britain (at least in civilian air space) caused the training program to be put on hold. But now the training is underway but it will take two years to produce 24 Watchkeeper operators and eventually a hundred will be needed to handle a force of 54 Watchkeepers. There are about half a dozen Watchkeeper operators, but these are trainers. Meanwhile Britain does have nearly a decade of experience using large UAVs (like Watchkeeper, Predator and Reaper), mainly in Afghanistan. The operators were trained in the United States initially and later in Britain. Most of the training can be done on simulators and British operators in training can practice in UAVs flying in the United States because the Predator and Reaper use a satellite link to communicate with the operator. Three Watchkeepers were sent to Afghanistan in 2014 and performed well.
In the United States and Western Europe air safety bureaucrats have long resisted calls to allow UAVs to be used for commercial purposes. In some European nations even military UAVs are heavily restricted from operating, even in air space controlled by the military. In other parts of the world UAVs are allowed to operate in civilian air space with no ill-effects. China has become an enthusiastic user of UAVs for monitoring pollution, crops and to do many other commercial jobs that previously were handled, at much high cost, by manned aircraft or space satellites. Israel does all that as well as flying UAVs through civilian air space just to get them where needed for some security or military situation. Israel is a small country and there’s not much choice. But the Israelis and Chinese also did the math and realized that UAVs are the real or even potential danger that American and European flight safety bureaucrats believe exists. That sort of thing does little to change the rules for UAVs in North America and Europe.
These policies can be expensive. In 2013 Germany cancelled plans to buy five RQ-4 UAVs, and wrote off $700 million in development costs, because they found it impossible to get permission from European Union aviation bureaucrats to operate these 14 ton UAVs in Europe. Called the Euro Hawk, this German version of the American RQ-4 was to be equipped with European electronics and serve as a long endurance recon aircraft. The problem was that European aviation authorities demanded extensive tests to ensure that the unmanned Euro Hawk could coexist with manned aircraft in European air space. It was determined that this process would cost over $800 million and there was no guarantee the UAV would be cleared to operate.
Flying has long been much safer than most people believed it to be. That paranoia has been extended to UAVs despite no lives lost to UAV collisions in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. There is a potential danger with large (over 50 kg/110 pound) UAVs, as these are hefty enough to bring down manned aircraft. Yet in a decade of heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan there has been one such collision for every 250,000 UAV flight hours. In the one incident so far there was no loss of life.
Despite the excellent safety record for UAVs in a combat zone, the fear of collisions has led to heavy restrictions on UAV use in disaster relief operations, which the military is often called upon for overseas and inside the United States. Right now the military must receive permission from the Secretary of Defense before using UAVs off the battlefield. That’s not really an issue at the moment because most recent disasters the military got involved in there were sufficient manned aircraft to look for survivors, assess damage, and so on. But overseas that is often not the case. Moreover disaster relief experts point out that in the early hours and days after a major disaster you can’t have too many eyes in the sky.
The one actual UAV collision took place in 2011 when a U.S. Army RQ-7 UAV and a U.S. Air Force C-130 transport collided. The RQ-7 hit a wing of the C-130, between the two engines. The RQ-7 was destroyed, while the C-130 had the skin of the front of that wing torn open and some of the interior spars bent. One of the props on the inboard propeller was destroyed (and that engine had to be turned off). But the C-130 was able to land safely, and parts and technicians were flown in to repair the C-130 where it was.
An RQ-7B Shadow 200 weighs only 159 kg (350 pounds), compared to 70,000 kg for a loaded C-130, so the outcome of this collision is not surprising. Shadow is small, being 3.5 meters (11 feet) long with a wingspan of 4.1 meters (12.75 feet). Most UAVs in the air over combat zones are even smaller. Indeed over 90 percent of them are the tiny two kilogram (4.4 pounds) Raven. Witnesses in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen a few of them destroyed, or simply knocked out of the air by a passing aircraft, usually a helicopter. Raven operators suspect that many of those that were lost for unknown reasons were similarly hit or caught in the backwash of low flying aircraft. A few have been seen getting attacked by birds. There have been very few recorded collisions.
The small, plastic, Raven would not do much noticeable damage to an aircraft. The pilots and crew of helicopters hit by Ravens apparently don’t notice it at all. After landing ground crews may notice a new dent and wonder where it came from. The Shadow collision was understandable because the Shadow is the largest UAV that often operates at low altitude (under 300 meters) and uses military airfields to land and take off.
In light of all this, the U.S. Army has developed a new radar system (GBSAA or Ground-Based Sense And Avoid) to increase safety for UAVs. GBSAA is mainly a software system using existing radars to track UAVs and manned aircraft and alert UAV operators when their UAVs are too close to other aircraft (manned or unmanned). GBSAA can be expanded to use transponders (which commercial aircraft have been using for a long time) and more flexible software. But the basic idea is to insure that UAV operators are no longer “blind” to what is in the air nearby. GBSAA had its first field test a year ago and it was a success. The first GBSAA was to be deployed in 2014 and five more bases will have it by 2016.
GBSAA will likely be more in demand by potential civilian UAV users. Battlefields have much lower safety standards than civilian air space, what with all those artillery and mortar shells, plus the bullets and rockets. But civilian air space has a lot of small aircraft and helicopters, so UAVs are generally banned. GBSAA could change that and make battlefields safer as the UAV traffic becomes denser.