You probably hear a lot in the news about UAVs – mostly due to the good ole US of A using them a lot to take the phrase “the long arm of the law” to an extreme. UAVs aren’t just the preserve of superpowers anymore though — they’re going to start appearing in your life too.
UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – the line between these and diddy little toy aircraft is blurred somewhat, but generally it’s agreed that any flying machine with a controllable camera, used commercially or that can fly itself without a human is a UAV.
Drones first really kicked off in the military world, during the Vietnam War. Unlike today, where satellites can be used extensively for battlefield reconnaissance, generals in the ‘60s had a much harder time getting their hands on pretty pictures of all the enemy tanks. (Ok, so maybe not tanks. This is Vietnam we’re talking about, after all.) Given the aforementioned lack of satellites, and the dangers associated with flying very low over cities with lots of nasty anti-aircraft weapons pointing skywards, the US military decided to look at having unmanned drones – previously used for target practice – outfitted with cameras and then program them to fly a pre-programmed route (no GPS remember, so not a particularly precise route) over enemy territory.
After the US’ initial success with drones, other big players (the USSR and Israel, to name but a few) felt all left out of the big boys’ club, and started working on drones of their own. The first Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), aka the first drone that could attack stuff (with missiles, of course) wasn’t, surprisingly, a US-made drone – it was a very primitive bit of kit designed by Iran and first used in in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It was miles removed from the sort of UAVs in service today, however – all this UAV consisted of was a big remote-control plane with some small rocket-propelled grenades bolted on, and there weren’t any lasers or even cameras to aim weapons – the pilot just flew his “drone” at the target, released a salvo of missiles and hoped they’d land in the right country.
Needless to say, the UAVs that linger in the skies of the Middle East nowadays are a different beast. The most ubiquitous is the American-made Predator (and its big brother, the Reaper). Owing to the lack of an onboard pilot, and therefore not needing annoying, bulky kit like oxygen tanks or controls, the Predator fits in more fuel and less weight than a conventional aircraft, giving a typical “loiter” time – the time it can spend sitting over a target looking over your shoulder – in the region of 14 hours. They’ve got hugely powerful cameras (official specs are a closely-guarded secret), but rumoured to be an adaptation of 4k film cameras. Finally, they carry a handful of Hellfire missiles (Hellfire standing for Helicopter Launched Fire-and-Forget Missile System – there’s a shoehorned acronym if ever I’ve seen one), which were originally designed to do unspeakable things to massed hordes of Soviet armour, but now tend to just blow up people or buildings.
It’s not all about the big UCAVs though. Most of the armies in Afghanistan now operate a smaller “backpack” UAV of one type or another. The British army’s version is called Desert Hawk, and is pretty much just a remote-controlled plane with a good-quality camera and a fancy briefcase with a joystick rather than a controller. The small size and low cost means that they’re becoming a far more common sight over the battlefield, and giving small unit commanders more reconnaissance assets than they’ve had in the past.
So that’s where UAVs are now, but where are they going in the future, and why are they going to be such a major part of your life? Well, the military success of UAVs and the low cost of smaller, Desert-Hawk type systems means that a whole plethora of civilian companies have looked at UAVs and worked out that if they can find terrorists hiding in ditches, they can probably do something for them. First off, and most promisingly, farmers are looking at using them for crop monitoring. There’s a small British firm (run by a woman in a Land Rover and a Barbour jacket, naturally) which has created a nice, simple plane-style UAV that can fly a pre-programmed route, take photos, and then help farmers to determine how their crops are doing, saving the farmers the hassle of driving all over the place in their tractors. In the US, where crop dusting is often done by airplanes, there’s enthusiasm for larger UAVs that can autonomously crop-dust, spending hours on end flying over the prairie spraying pesticide from a very low altitude – a surprisingly dangerous activity, and probably quite tedious as well.
Another, equally promising project, is the plan to adapt military reconnaissance UAVs for Search and Rescue operations. As the recent case of Dan Hunt, a British speedflyer lost in the Swiss Alps for days on end showed, helicopters are expensive to run – a single 2-hour search ran the poor guy’s parents a pretty steep £6000. UAVs need less fuel and fewer pilots to fly, and can easily be outfitted with thermal cameras to find people, even if they’re cold and curled up under a rock.
Of course, given that UAVs are great at finding people and spying on stuff, it was only a matter of time before the police, who seem to be quite fond of spying on people, to move their CCTV coverage to the sky. For now, the doom-mongers could probably take it easy – a few police forces are trialling UAVs, yes, but only to replace police helicopters, not to fly around for no reason spying on ordinary citizens. Still, they’ll have to overcome embarrassing gaffes like flying their UAVs into a river before they can use them day-to-day.
For the moment, the police seem to like multi-rotor aircraft, owing to their agility and ease of use in built-up areas. For some reason, as in the photograph above, some of them are also eschewing conventional screens in favour of VR goggles which make them seem like overweight, high-vis versions of Terminator. Ultimately, though, police UAVs are coming – it might just take a while, that’s all.
Additionally, before you get yourself in a tizzy regarding the expansion of the Big Brother state and how we’re only one step away from 1984 (yes, you there, at the back, with the tinfoil hat), you might find some comfort in knowing that there is someone out there trying to reign in the rampant enthusiasm the police have for new toys. The Civil Aviation Authority (and the Federal Aviation Authority) in the US are still determining what is allowed to fly and what’s not, and what sort of restrictions to place on UAVs. At the moment, small UAVs are allowed to fly in UK airspace, but not above 400 feet and no further than 500m away from the operator – making them fairly useless for most purposes.
Special licenses can be acquired from the CAA, but generally require the UAV to have a “sense and avoid” capability – quite a lot of sensors that can detect nearby aircraft and take appropriate action. As for larger UAVs, these are dealt with on a per-case basis and generally tested over the Irish Sea, where they can’t really hit much (apart from flying leprechauns, naturally). So, the gist of this is, if you’ve got a deep-rooted desire to spy on your neighbour, a ladder and a pair of binoculars is still going to serve you better than a home-brewed UAV. Or just buy a Parrot AR Drone, and show off to all your friends that you’ve got something that can do rolls in mid-air.
Finally, a look at the future of UAVs wouldn’t be complete without talking about their future applications in the military. The more astute among you will have noticed that the big bad UAVs are great when you own the skies, but rubbish if you want to be stealthy/fast/difficult to shoot at. To this end, the UK is developing a supersonic stealth UAV called Taranis – named after the Celtic god of thunder. (That’s a pretty cool name. I think everything should be named after Celtic gods from now on.)
Although it doesn’t have the same ability to sit over targets ad nauseam as the current crop of UAVs, it would be far more useful in a war where we don’t own the skies. As well as this, the US is also looking into building UAVs it can fly from its fleet of supercarriers. Both the US Navy’s prototype, and the UK’s own Taranis have one other important difference to the current generation, apart from the sleek-looking hardware. They both have a far higher degree of autonomy, so these puppies will generally fly themselves to the target, select the target, have a human in a control centre somewhere say “yes, that is the building you’re meant to destroy”, blow up whoever’s on Santa’s naughty list this Christmas, and they fly themselves home.
It’s an interesting concept, and one that would lessen the need for trained pilots, but I personally am not in a particular rush to have planes carrying lethal weapons flying around over my head. At least with Predators, there’s a human in constant control. With these, I just feel the potential for them to go rogue is far greater, especially when they’re finding targets themselves.
It’s not all about super-fast UAVs dropping bombs though. Another growing trend is the move towards “kamikaze” UAVs, which are fast, missile-like UAVs that would be dropped by a mother plane, before flying around; finding a target and then going and getting more closely acquainted. Although this is expensive, as it means every missile needs more radios and sensors, it is a good solution for areas with good anti-aircraft capabilities, as it means that only the missiles, and not the bigger mothership are put in harm’s way.
Ultimately, though, UAVs are coming, whether you like it or not. Yes, you should have a few concerns about them – I personally am worried about what the tabloid press would do if they could get their hands on a UAV – but I think they’re going to be a force for good. As with most technology that has such wide-reaching ramifications, however, it’s going to be up to the government to temper the relentless push forwards with a little bit of caution and common sense – but at the same time not stifling what has the potential to be something the UK can excel at.
After all, little remote-control planes are perfect for a nation of garden shed engineers and tinkerers.
Image credits: Header image, Wikimedia Commons, 1st image: Ryan’s Avionics, 2nd image, The Blue Sweater, 3rd image, Defence Imagery, 4th image, BBC, 5th image, Gizmodo AU, 6th image, Daily Mail, 7th image, BAE Systems, 8th image, MBDA.