UAVs: What's Up?
May 15, 2007

When Leonardo Da Vinci wasn't busy painting, sculpting or heading up secret societies, he was inventing all manner of things for the betterment of mankind including – according to the Internet – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Even if you might doubt that paragon of veracity, there is no question that UAVs have been around for a lot longer than you might think. The first heavier than air craft was unmanned (1848 Stringfellow). So called “aerial torpedoes” were built during WWI, and target drones since before WWII. Cruise missiles are a variety of UAV as was their grandfather the V-1 or 'buzz bomb.'

Being a ‘fly on the wall’ in the opponent’s camp may be closer than you think.

In the past couple of decades, the number and variety of UAVs has mushroomed, and these days, can include aircraft from the size of a hand-launched pie plate to a regular airplane. Such is the extent of the variety, that officialdom is hard-pressed to classify them. Transport Canada, for example, lists UAVs as being a powered aircraft over 35 kilograms. One wonders what they might think of current efforts to make flying surveillance craft using nano-technology. Being a ‘fly on the wall’ in the camp of an opponent is coming – and coming soon.

Perhaps a useful way to discriminate between them is by the task they are intended to perform. Originally thought of as offensive weapons platforms, they are now primarily tasked with surveillance duties – either tactical or strategic – although UAVs such as the U.S. Air Force’s Predator can perform both roles with relative ease, blurring the line again.

The idea of employing UAVs to carry out the dangerous and/or dreary is far from new. Leaving military and combat operations aside for a moment, there are appealing advantages to UAVs which are additional to removing the inherent risk involved with putting a person in flight.

Much of a regular aircraft’s weight and equipment, for example, is essentially a life support system for the frail human pilot – weight which could be used to carry task-oriented equipment.

Range is limited by the technology but not by an aviator’s endurance, as the mission can continue with the next shift. Neither is surveillance capability limited to the “Mark 1 eyeball.”

Other cost savings immediately present themselves. UAVs are generally much less expensive to build, maintain and operate than conventional aircraft. Although it’s true that crashes tend to drive costs up, one must take into account that this is still an experimental field that is just beginning to “take off.”

Though most remotely controlled UAVs are flown by licensed pilots, it is not an absolute prerequisite. It seems that the hours and quarters spent in video arcades might not be wasted after all.

There are reports that the U.S. military is employing game veterans to help train flight personnel in the intricacies of computer joystick controls. And engineers for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) flight simulator listened to design feedback suggestions from kids who were allowed to fly the JSF simulator without prior instruction.

For autonomous UAVs, the savings are even greater – let the programme do the flying. The marriage of UAVs and various levels of artificial technology is one that many observers see as highly desirable for applications such as long-range surveillance. It is also something of a nightmare scenario for others who fear the use of armed UAVs in combat situations without human control.

LCol Phillippe Jourdeuil of the Chief Force Development Organization at DND points out that these types of ‘fire and ­forget’ weapons – such as cruise missiles – have already been extensively used. As for armed UAVs, such as those currently in use by U.S. Forces in Iraq, he says, “the delivery of weapons from a UAV platform when you’ve got eyes on the ­target is not all that much different from what you’ve got from a pilot in a plane.” He also points out that, “as the technology advances, the ability to hit the target that you want – and not unintended targets – should improve.” In any case, he says, “that’s not where we’re going in Canada.”

In Afghanistan, Canadian forces are currently using the French-made Sperwer (also used by the Swedish, French, Dutch and Greek armed forces). It’s in the small to mid-sized range of UAVs – doesn’t need a runway for either take-off or landing and fills a critical reconnaissance role for commanders on the ground.

This type of tactical use will continue to be a part of Canada’s UAV arsenal, but, “we’re looking at putting together a family of UAVs in the next 10-15 years,” he says. The family will include smaller UAVs for local battlefield surveillance, and mid- to high-altitude long-range UAVs destined to provide domestic and international surveillance. “Our ability to exercise our sovereignty is partly based on being able to see what’s going on and be able to react to it,” says LCol Jourdeuil.

Given the sheer size of the country, sovereignty, security and border issues demand innovative solutions.

Providing persistent surveillance for our maritime approaches, northern territories, and seemingly endless border is problematic by conventional means and with traditional budgets. UAVs would seem to be the answer. For LCol Jourdeuil, the bottom line has a decidedly different emphasis. “They cost a lot less,” he says, “and they don’t put pilots at risk.”
David Eadie is a freelance writer who has written extensively on topics related to military and technology matters.
© FrontLine Defence 2007