New Missions for Pilotless Aircraft

Two-and-a-half years ago when I was in Iraq, I remember — among the sound of mortars, crackling gunfire, thundering helicopters, roaring jets, and the occasional (thankfully distant) IED explosions — the somewhat-comforting sound of the remotely piloted little reconnaissance airplanes we’ve come to know as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Comforting, I say, because I knew that as long as those UAVs were up there, bad guys on the ground (who I and others could not see) were either being watched, having their freedom-of-movement limited, or being targeted for a strike by the good guys.

Occasionally I heard a UAV during daylight hours, particularly if it was close overhead, whining like a minibike or a “weedwhacker,” as has often been described. But more often than not, I heard UAVs at night. Not every night, but usually if there was a lot of tactical air activity overhead or something big happening on the ground.

One soldier friend, we’ll call him “Dave,” a U.S. Army UAV operator serving in Baghdad during the height of the war, tells me, “We had at least two planes up in the air all the time, weather permitting, flying over all different areas of the city.”

But, he adds, there are several reasons I would not have heard them all the time.

“One is because there are so many other types of noises, especially in the day: It’s very hard to hear them in the day,” Dave says. “But at night they can be loud as hell, especially when they come right overhead, like a giant weedwhacker coming over your house.”

Dave — whose job was to remotely pilot a “Shadow,” an 11-ft.-long UAV with a nearly 13-ft. wingspan powered by a motorcycle engine — says that just because I did not hear a UAV every night did not mean one wasn’t up and on station. It may not have been operating close enough to my position to be audible; I could actually have heard the UAV if it was only a couple of miles out. But hearing it depended on how high and fast it was flying, the direction it was flying, weather conditions, and other noise in the area.

That was in 2007. UAV technology — like everything else — has progressed exponentially in terms of tactical and strategic capabilities, performance, and stealthiness (far quieter today than the weedwhackers I heard over Iraq and with an increasingly low-observable design).

On Friday, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported the U.S. Air Force had confirmed to the magazine “the existence” of a stealthy UAV photographed flying out of Afghanistan in late 2007.

Much speculation has surrounded the so-called “Beast of Kandahar.” But according to the article, the UAV — dubbed RQ-170 Sentinel — is a product of Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Works, which has been “developing a stealthy unmanned aircraft system to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed combat forces.”

Recent innovation has not only been reflected in UAV performance and stealthiness, but in size, which also impacts stealthiness and increases mission-capabilities.

“The smallest UAVs today can fit in the palm of your hand,” Steve Nordlund, director of business development for the Unmanned Airborne Systems Division of Boeing Military Aircraft, tells HUMAN EVENTS. “The largest are the high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft with wingspans in the hundreds-of-feet.”  
According to Nordlund, the tiniest UAVs are capable of flying into — and maneuvering through — buildings and collecting information room-by-room. The largest UAVs may be used for high-altitude strategic intelligence collection. In between, there are unmanned vertical-lift vehicles (yes, pilotless helicopters); and both rotary and fixed-wing UAV missions include everything from intelligence collection, surveillance, and communications relay, to remote delivery of unmanned ground vehicles and sensors, to search and rescue, to re-supply of troops, to direct attack.

But UAV development — which has evolved from a pre-9/11 entrepreneurial phase to a much larger defense-industry endeavor — is looking to reach out beyond its natural military application and tap into other markets: things like weather forecasting and atmospheric testing; mapping and pipeline inspection for petroleum companies; industrial security; agricultural, wildlife, and land management; domestic law enforcement; firefighting; even commercial shipping where UAVs are sometimes used to patrol beyond a ship-crew’s visual horizon looking for pirates.

Companies competing for a growing piece of the UAV pie include Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Textron, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and others.

The problem on the domestic side is that UAVs are presently not permitted to operate in civil airspace; though there are granted exceptions such as the Shadow having “an FAA experimental airworthiness certificate to operate together with civil general aviation aircraft” at a small airport in Arizona, according to an article in Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine.

And with U.S. Air Force and Navy researchers pushing the aircraft industry to develop a collision avoidance system to prevent UAVs from crashing into other planes while operating in the civilian National Air Space System, domestic operations are no longer an “if,” but a “when.”

So the two big questions are:

First, will unmanned aircraft one day replace manned aircraft?

No one can answer this question beyond the knowledge that the factoring-variables are technology and public acceptance or non-acceptance in time. In other words, if an unmanned aircraft is eventually developed that can deliver 200 passengers from one city to another, will an airline company purchase that aircraft? And will passengers buy tickets to fly on a pilotless plane?

Second, what can a UAV do that a manned aircraft cannot?

According to Nordlund, “The obvious answer is that the UAV removes the danger of losing a human being that would otherwise be piloting a manned aircraft. Also, most UAVs don’t require runways or carrier flight decks which make the UAVs much more expeditionary in nature, great for instance, for the Marines.”

In kinetic operations — both pitched battle and counterterrorist missions — UAVs have proven to be effective (and increasingly trusted) tools, but Dave tells me that trust has not always been there. “There’s a lot of faulty intelligence out there, so a lot of the intelligence officers and analysts have their BS meters really high,” he says. “So when you say, ‘Hey, here’s what happened here and we have video evidence of it,’ they don’t want to believe it because a lot of intel guys are ex-infantry guys, and they [understandably] want human intelligence instead. They know that bad intel can lead to dead infantry soldiers. But even human intelligence is not always solid. There’s a lot of rumor intelligence out there too.”

Distrust of UAV intelligence has changed. Today, ground forces depend on it, even forces at sea like U.S. Navy SEALs, who relied heavily on photographic intelligence gathered by a Boeing-built ScanEagle UAV during their seaborne rescue of the Maersk Alabama’s Capt. Richard Phillips, who was held hostage by pirates off Somalia in April.

In the public eye, however, UAVs are often misunderstood, and UAV operations are almost-always unsung.

UAVs are misunderstood in that unmanned aircraft are not simply photographic-reconnaissance platforms. As mentioned, they also are capable of bringing guns, missiles, and bombs to the fight. And the “direct attack” role of the UAV is only going to expand.

UAVs also are misunderstood, primarily by those of us in the media, who frequently and inaccurately refer to UAVs as “drones.” One UAV operator tells me, “It’s kind of insulting to call our planes, drones. Drones are what the Air Force and Navy send up to shoot down. It’s what they use for target practice. Drones are made to die. Not UAVs.”

UAVs are unsung in the sense that the aircraft don’t get the public recognition some of their operators believe they deserve. Fact is, UAVs are in the fight from start-to-finish. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, many ground-combat missions have been launched based on accurate photographic intelligence collected by UAVs. Once the mission is launched, UAVs are overhead looking and basically telling the commander on the ground things that are happening which he cannot see. And if during a fight, the enemy breaks and runs, UAVs follow — without losing — the fleeing enemy far-faster than our pursuing ground forces.

“When we put this technology in the hands of say, the Marine Corps, they are using it to create new ways to fight,” says Nordlund. “So we don’t know where it’s going to go for sure. Too many people view unmanned systems as the here-and-now [based on current operations]. What’s really happening is that we are incubating technology that will have application both militarily and commercially in ways we have not begun to imagine.”