In case you haven’t already seen it, the most recent issue of “The Economist” had an excellent piece on UAVs entitled “Flight of the drones: Why the future of air power belongs to unmanned systems.”
A few points were correctly brought out in terms of overall UAV weaknesses. I’ll be the first to admit that UAVs are not a panacea for current and future traditional manned platform issues. In other words, fighter pilots now and in the foreseeable future should feel confident in their job security. However, the defense industry and government partners are working to address the primary issues affecting UAVs. Therefore, UAVs will remain an important and growing part of the military portfolio of airborne platforms.
Figure 1: Select worldwide UAVs
The degree to which UAVs can operate autonomously right now is limited, especially for any complex military mission. Nonetheless, as Lt Gen David Deptula, USAF (ret), mentioned in the article “Technologically, we can take [autonomy] pretty far, but it won’t be technology that is the limiting factor, it will be policy.” In the short-term, technology will be the limiting factor when it comes to autonomy. But in the long-term, military policy will be the ultimate challenge.
Related to autonomy is the delay in reaction time between UAVs and control stations. For the most part, UAVs are heavily reliant on data links, and the proliferation of information from FMV (full-motion video) has only exacerbated this issue. Furthermore, encryption problems have just recently surfaced within US DoD ground control stations (see related article here). The defense industry is developing products that will increase the overall data link speeds, broaden the bandwidth, and add a level of encryption necessary to protect against future cyber-attacks. In addition, an effort is underway to add “smart” processing and exploitation capabilities to onboard sensors so that only significant information is disseminated, thus minimizing unnecessary data transmissions.
UAV access to the civil airspace has huge ramifications, both for military and civilian UAV uses. This issue became even more of a hot topic after an RQ-7B “Shadow” collided with a C-130 “Hercules” in Afghanistan on August 15th this year (see related article here). While at AUVSI in DC, I think UAV access to the civil airspace came up during 75 percent of the presentations I attended, regardless of the overall topic. In other words, everybody and anybody were talking about it. Again, the defense industry is addressing this challenge via a multitude of “sense and avoid” approaches. The FAA will certainly not bend any rules for UAVs, nor should they. I see a solution here in the near-term, due mainly to the fact that all parties involved recognize the problem yet see the enormous benefits for civil and military applications.