Drones or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are one of the most advanced warfare technologies of our time and have significantly changed the way warfare is conducted by eliminating the human element in the sky. There are two types of drones for military use: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), with RPAS used mostly for complicated and high-risk missions. Drones are the military’s “eye in the sky”, delivering real-time imagery of activities on the ground. They are relatively cheap and have higher endurance compared to combat aircraft. RPAS require a team of pilot, sensor operator, mission intelligence coordinator, and ground commander and are piloted remotely through a satellite link.

RPAS have a complicated history however the RPA pilot pool continues to grow more than traditional human-piloted aircraft. According to the U.S. Air Education and Training Command (AETC), a graduation ceremony held in January 2017 marked the 1000th graduate under the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Training programme. The use of these drones have been controversial regarding human disengagement and distance from the battlefield and for inflicting civilian casualties. The first MQ-1 Predator drone strike appears to have taken place in Afghanistan in 2002 with drones since then launching on hundreds of missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Somalia.

Like most technologies, drones have evolved through the years and so comes the time to retire a system. In February 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense announced its plans to withdraw the infamous MQ-1 from service early next year. The MQ-1 will be replaced by the more advanced MQ-9 Reaper with upgraded capabilities such as increased speed, high-definition sensors, and the ability to carry more munitions. The MQ-1 was not originally designed to carry weapons hence its limited 450-pound payload able to carry two laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The MQ-9 has a 3750 pound payload equipped to carry a combination of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Some drones do not require a pilot or runway such as South African company Paramount Group’s fully automated, high-mobility, medium range UAV system called Vulture, which has a three-hour operating time. Fully automated drones can be used for coastal surveillance, mobile observation, medium range intelligence missions and tactical awareness, border patrol, aerial photography, disaster image gathering, and artillery target acquisition and fire correction.

Autonomous systems such as micro-drone swarms are fast becoming a reality. Under development by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command – Perdix drones were recently launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets demonstrating advanced swarm behavior such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing. Drone swarms will have a number of applications such as reconnaissance, surveillance, jamming communications, and forming an airborne communications network.

Defence-related drone manufacturers in the U.S. include companies like General Atomics (developer of the MQ-1 and MQ-9), Northrop Grumman, Textron Systems, and Boeing. General Atomics is heavily involved in drone development for the U.S. and will continue to develop Phase 2 of the Gremlins programme for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Gremlins programme enables various types of aircraft to launch low-cost, reusable drones and retrieve them mid-air. The drones could be deployed with payloads suited to different missions offering operational flexibility.

The U.S. continues to lead with the MQ-9, but other countries are not far behind in producing their own drones. In March, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) signed a deal with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) to build its own plant to manufacture its Cai Hong drones. In Europe, the Israeli defence company Elbit Systems in partnership with UK based defence company Thales are supplying the British army with an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) drone called Watchkeeper. In April last year, France ordered the SAGEM Patroller, a medium-altitude, long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

The future is bound to see autonomous drones with a diverse range of mission applications. If successfully developed, hypersonic drones will be the technology of the future, able to reach critical combat situations in a short amount of time.


Written by Sylvia Caravotas (Satovarac Consulting) for OIDA


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