Unmanned, The Way Of The Future

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As the 100th anniversary of manned flight looms, some navel-gazers are now suggesting the future of flight is with drones. "It's no longer 'yes or no.' The technology and the systems are accepted," Daryl Davidson, head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), told CNN. "These things are here to stay and they are proliferating. We'll see them on every runway of every airport doing patrols and day-to-day routine tasks." Some are even predicting that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be the last manned fighter. But battlefield conditions, and their attendant attrition rates, don't apply over a crowded freeway; others suggest it will be a while before we accept drones for traffic reports or other urban uses. "The local TV station isn't going to be happy to have a million dollar plane crash into traffic or someone's house," said aerospace analyst Steve Zaloga. "It's going to be a hazard and it's going to be a cost issue." (Maybe it's just harder to blame the pilot if he or she is still alive -- because the flying was done remotely from a trailer, and not in the plane.) As sophisticated as the technology is, the rest of the world has some catching up to do to make effective use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). For example, current unmanned airplanes need extremely high-bandwidth telemetry to keep them in the air. While their use is becoming commonplace in the military, commercial applications are tentative, at best. NASA tested one to monitor frost conditions on California grape crops and the Forest Service is looking at using UAVs to relay images of forest fires. Australia is looking at curbing illegal immigration and drug smuggling with them and some countries want them to monitor the seas for piracy and storms. Safety aside, high cost is the biggest deterrent to commercial application. While the planes themselves cost up to $3 million, all the stuff needed to keep them in the air can easily escalate to more than $35 million, almost as much as an F-35.