The answer is yes they are but there is still quite some way to go yet before we see pocket size ‘drones’ flying around our towns, cities and countryside making money for those prepared to believe that this really is the next real technology revolution.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) or to give them the more common technically incorrect name used by press and media – drones – it is fair to say that UAV and RPAS have been operating very successfully in the military of quite a few countries around the globe for a long time. To the point that they can be described as mature technology today is because through their application and use in theatre they have proven themselves to be a very necessary ‘eye in the sky’ additional must have capability that allows those engaging in operational missions on the ground or in the air to have the reconnaissance and intelligence they require to carry out a specific mission.
A point that is sadly so often lost is that UAV’s are, just as all military and civil aircraft flying today are, also piloted albeit from a command and control position that could be located a very far way away. It is an important point that should never be lost – whether piloted locally or maybe from a place and country many thousands of miles away, UAV’s and RPAS have exceptionally well trained pilots as well.
Use of UAV’s in the commercial world has not surprisingly been slow to almost non-existent so far due to the need to agree the obvious restrictions that would have to be placed on their use, and of how the whole process of UAV’s would be regulated for the purposes of use of airspace and public safety. While there is much research and long term investment going on currently with a view to recognising the importance that the civil aspects of UAV use will eventually have, their free and unencumbered use for civilian applications remains restricted to just a small handful of nations in which safety concerns are less of an issue. But best to be in no doubt that once the rules of engagement have eventually been set growth and the barriers to UAV use removed by the authorities on the basis of the establishment and embodiment of a proper regulatory regime, future use of UAV’s for and by public, commercial and civilian entities is to me all but assured.
For now the primary use of UAV’s is thus still restricted to the military and I suspect that position is unlikely to change over the next five or six years. Piloted by a specialist team on board ship the Royal Navy for instance now uses the small unarmed ScanEagle UAV for reconnaissance and intelligence purposes. With a wingspan of 10ft, weighing 48lbs and flying at about 60 knots the ScanEagle mission, using state of the art sensors including video and infra-red camera, is to beam back ‘real time’ high resolution images via a satellite link.
In addition to those operated from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada by 39 Squadron the Royal Air Force has through 13 Squadron been operating the Predator MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted air system platform from RAF Waddington on Operation Herrick missions in Afghanistan. Reaper, a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) remotely piloted air system has, over the two years it has been in operation with the Royal Air Force, been used very successfully for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) support missions with no loss of capability in theatre. Reaper has also been used to provide close air support on opportunity targets for troops operating in the forward part of a battle-space area. Having evolved from a pure ISTAR and ISA (Intelligence and Situational Awareness) role we may expect that in the years ahead UAV’s will evolve further to include all aspects of find, fix, track, target, engage and assess kill chain. Whatever, while I cannot envisage unmanned military aircraft replacing combat jet capability and high end ISTAR capability in the next generation the continued generation of the capability will ensure that UAV’s will play an increasingly large role within the UK air power component.
The Army has been using a variety of unmanned air systems including T-Hawk (Tarantula) micro air vehicle, this being used with great success to counter the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) in Afghanistan and Desert Hawk, a UAV that is used by troops on the ground for discreet operations including providing an ‘over the hill’ view for Force commanders.
More recently the Army has begun using the Thales Watchkeeper WK450 system and which is the UK’s new generation tactical UAV for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions. With dual payload configuration, flexible, all weather operation plus de-icing capability, automatic take-off and landing and that provides the user with improved access to sub-systems for easier maintenance Watchkeeper is a much needed addition to UK defence capability.
Paul Cremlin, head of aviation safety at the Department of Transport, is reported in the Times today to have said that “detect and avoid systems required to allow unmanned aerial vehicles”, more commonly referred to as drones, “to fly in UK skies will be ready for commercial use by 2023”. At that point the belief is that the use of small unmanned aerial vehicles will begin to change our lives on a scale perhaps that the internet has done over the past twenty five years. While there will be many other hurdles to climb over before use of civilian ‘drones, becomes commonplace such as deciding when and where these can operate, permissions required by CAA and maybe even the MAA not to mention fitting in with EU policy I am in little doubt that in the lifetime of many reading this piece today the application and use of small drones initially for observation, research and reconnaissance really will be a commonplace activity. In time we may also anticipate drone use in goods delivery and, as an interesting front page article in the Times suggests today, crop spraying and tracking of animals for research purposes.
In some countries drones are already being used to search for water leaks in pipes, checking railway electrification and track infrastructure and roads. The possibilities for civilian applications of drone use really are enormous.
There are other very much wider applications for unmanned aerial vehicle technology and by coincidence I mentioned one only yesterday. While again primarily military but with potentially interesting longer term civilian application the brilliance of Zephyr, a solar powered high altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned system, is that it is able to keep flying for weeks and even months if required. Potential applications for Zephyr include persistent surveillance including mass earth observation and communication relay in support of a range of defence, security and commercial requirements. Launched by hand the aircraft flies by day on solar power delivered by amorphous silicon solar arrays that are no thicker than the sheets of paper that cover the aircraft’s wings. These are then used to recharge the lithium-sulphur batteries which power the system during the night. Now part of the Airbus High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) programme and called Airbus Zephyr this amazing flight vehicle achieved the record for the longest endurance flight for an unmanned aircraft of 336 hours, 22 minutes and 8 seconds. Zephyr also holds the record of the highest remotely powered unmanned aircraft altitude of 61,696 ft. (18,805 metres).
While the various regulatory authorities and politicians argue over there use and of what restrictions will need to be applied to ensure public safety be in no doubt that the use of unmanned aerial systems will occur. The potential cost savings for their use in infrastructure support are enormous. When this occurs we will I am sure be saying that yet another technology revolution will have been born and while we may question what the benefit is for each of us as individuals there can be no doubt that the corporate sector will benefit.
In the meantime be reassured that the regulatory authorities will ensure that the use of drones is safe and that they will not present a hazard in terms of interfering with national and international air traffic, or with the ability of ordinary people to go about their business. Clearly the use of unmanned aerial vehicles will be restricted because it will have to be. But just as we accepted driverless trains on the Docklands Light Railway and will in future decades accept driverless trains on the London Underground and maybe elsewhere, just as we will accept the notional driverless car, tractor and greater use of robots in everyday jobs drones will I believe become commonplace within a generation. Perhaps they could also be used inside the hospitals and elsewhere inside the NHS to check out waste of resource!
CHW (London 16th October 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785