Drone Wars: Exciting, But Creepy

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The late Robin Olds used to tell a funny story about his experience commanding a fighter wing in Vietnam. Olds had been a World War II ace and, during the development of the F-4 Phantom II, had become a pain to the Air Force staff during the 1950s for his insistence that any new fighter should have a gun and be capable of turning dogfights. The original F-4 lacked both. The Air Force gave the Phantom a powerful radar and missile technology biased toward engagements beyond visual range.

So when Olds got to Vietnam, what did he encounter? Turning dogfights for which the F-4 was ill-equipped. Senior military staffs are often faulted for weapons and tactics suited to the last war, but in Vietnam, the reverse was true: They were fighting the next war against an enemy using lesser technology with lethal effectiveness.

As the Air Force and the aviation industry goes full tilt into unmanned aerial vehicles, I have to wonder if it's about to make the same mistake again. It's been widely reported that the services are already training more UAV pilots than manned aircraft pilots and this ratio will accelerate exponentially not just in the mid-term, but over just a few years.

It's happening around the globe. In his book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, P.†W. Singer reports that two thirds of world military expenditures on drones are being spent by countries other than the U.S. That means that every power will have to develop means to defend against drones as well as field them. This has disturbing implications, since rogue powers or terrorist groups might use drones as multipliers against larger powers.

At this stage, it looks as though robotic flight development is in a similar track as aircraft development in general was between about 1938 and 1945, when progress was rapid and dramatic. The danger of this is twofold. Our enemies may acquire potent technology to use against us and we may become susceptible to group think that leads to too strong a tilt away from manned aircraft and toward drones. If, as in Vietnam, a future enemy wants to fight with manned aircraft, will we respond with the same or have advanced drones to do the dirty work?

I don't envy the services having to make this assessment. I certainly don't know the answer myself. And it's not just the military caught up in the drone wars. On the civil side, drones are coming into use for law enforcement and scientific work. I was stunned when a third-party company announced a pilotless version of the Diamond DA42 twin for survey work. I had no idea anyone was investing in this technology.

We've heard a rumor or two that the freight companies are angling toward crewless aircraft to fly cargo autonomously from one destination to the next. That idea meets my definition of "disruptive technology."

I don't know how something can be exciting and creepy at the same time, but this certainly is.

Comments (63)

A few years ago, a group of RC airplane modelers flew a gps-enabled airplane across the north atlantic autonomously (they did have to manually take-off and land) An impressive feat to say the least, but all of this certainly raises security questions in this day in age. I will be impressed if our nation's current philosophy of denying those who will do us harm access to materials can be extended to GPS enabled cell-phones and balsa wood.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 16, 2010 10:38 AM    Report this comment

Drones are great right up until the comm link breaks down or the onboard computer must reboot. Then what? And how long until someone comes up with an effective jamming method for the comm and nav signals, rendering the drones useless (and dangerous, as they must eventually come back down) in both war and peace scenarios?
Drones seem to me to be the antithesis of redundancy, as when any one critical glitch happens, it's very probably game over. A pilot might be able to dead-stick a broken airplane to a safe landing; I find it difficult to believe that a broken airplane will be able to do the same for itself.
Will the public be willing to accept the risk of having a FedEx heavy crater into their city because of a computer malfunction? I don't think so; I know I am not.

Posted by: Jonathan Harger | March 16, 2010 6:28 PM    Report this comment

Jamming for the comm and nav signals - looks like the computer security engineers will have a wonderful job outlook!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 16, 2010 8:04 PM    Report this comment

The jamming/breakdown argument applies to any recent aircraft. Latest Boeing and Airbus machines are also heavily reliant on electronics (which replaced old-school tech like vacuum and laser). I would want to be a passenger in a B787 or A380 when the lights go out either. Plus, there are quite a number of accidents caused by pilot error. I think this drone stuff is quite exciting. It is interesting as well to see how in the last decades innovation has come from the experimental class, and now it is coming from RC aircraft (couple hundred $ for a full pitot/ gyro/gps/autopilot system, another couple hundred for a live video feed with HUD-overlay). If the Wright Bros hadn't been under the regulators radar, we would still be floating across the oceans.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | March 17, 2010 5:49 AM    Report this comment

I may be old school, but I rather like having mechanical pulleys and cables controlling my flight controls. I find it somewhat disconnecting to fly a LPV approach relying totally on satellite guidance, but that's what we've got and it sure does work nice. I just hope by replacing mechanical linkages (and pilots) with electrons, we are not creating the aerial version of a Toyota Prius. Ask anyone who has flown serious IFR behind an autopilot - they'll tell you it's nice to have, but they don't trust it.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 17, 2010 7:16 AM    Report this comment

Don't our airways deserve the same protections as our roadways? Would remote or computer controlled trucks and cars be acceptable on highways?

Posted by: Art Sebesta | March 17, 2010 9:50 AM    Report this comment

I read in a recent Aviation Week that the Air Force has to have 120 people to support one drone.

Drones make a lot of sense in a combat zone, none at all in ANY civilian application.

A Cessna Caravan or Beech King Air can do anything any drone can do at a fraction of the cost and far less risk to the general public.

Posted by: Jim Howard | March 17, 2010 9:53 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I think you are on to something as in the constant goal of elimating the human factor, electronics and automation to the rescue. As Air Bus's desire of the pilot and dog in the cockpit for today (dog bites pilot if control touch is done and pilot to feed dog), tomorrow no pilot at all. There are steps underway in the name of safety to program planes to be landed from the ground, today. With the ability to jam GPS signals being practiced by the military now and other jamming available...

I admit as a pilot, I hate UAV's and several years ago I responded to an invite to a demo of a commercial rotorcraft with, "I will go and pick it up when you lose it!" The program was scrubbed due to "security" issues and violations. They are using manned helos instead. It is coming though...

Posted by: Chuck West | March 17, 2010 10:27 AM    Report this comment

And youse guys still think 2012 is mythical whimsy.

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 17, 2010 10:45 AM    Report this comment

As the industry often does, it is getting so wrapped up in the "elegance" of the technology is that they are forgetting about why pilots are on aircraft in the first place.

The idea of pilotless cargo, or any kind of aircraft, in large numbers as part of the transport industry ignores one very important fact.

That is, the purpose of the human pilot is to assure that the aircraft lands safely, in spite of what failures or jamming take place with the aircraft instruments, systems and equipment.

As Chuck West points out, the current attitude in the automated aircraft is to discourage hand flying of the aircraft in favor of the automation.
The question must be asked, then how does the pilot create and maintain the skills it takes to fly the airplane when something fails or in icing conditions in the terminal area when it should not be flown on the autopilot.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | March 17, 2010 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Many of us locally are hoping that Luke AFB wins the contract for the new F35 lightning for many reasons, and I think its main difference between the F16's - stealth tech for missle defense from surface or drones - points to why the services are going full bore on drones and stealth and away from air combat. For the military and keeping our blood contained, I say it's sensible. Just like with computers we'll always have to stay ahead of the jammers, etc. but as Mr. Harger wrote, there is a risk factor in civilian and commercial use that I don't think we will tolerate for unmanned flights. And who but accountants and shareholders would endorse that anyway?

Posted by: David Miller | March 17, 2010 2:17 PM    Report this comment

We are constantly confronted with death and mayhem from electronicaly monitored rail transportation. To make a point against safety, consider that these contrapions HAVE human pilots. It is not uncommon for both safety systems to fail at once (onboard and off). That will be from the sky as well. And there is the added risk from hostile forces also! What would weather have to add? To envision such sky-traffic is one thing but to trust it is Russian Roulette with a RPG!

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 17, 2010 2:27 PM    Report this comment

At Oshkosh one year Burt Rutan pointed out that if the Air Force's TR-1/U-2 force had anything close to the accident rate of the USAF drone fleet then the last TR-1/U-2 would have crashed many years ago.

Drones save lives in combat, but they are more expensive and more dangerous to operate than manned aircraft. They should be banned for any civilian use. I'm looking at you Border Patrol.

Posted by: Jim Howard | March 17, 2010 2:40 PM    Report this comment

Miller and Fries are correct in it is the application and then boredom of being a mere monitor of the automated systems that breeds a whole new concern. I seem to remember with the B-757, that pilots were complaning of not enough interaction a decade ago. Although I am glad to see the pilots from the Northwest "fly-by" working to get back in the saddle, they are posters boys to what happens when you ain't got nothing to do. That applies to no matter what they were doing and has bore fruit in trains as well. Drones over a battlefield, hell yea, downtown Bakerfield, well...

Posted by: Chuck West | March 17, 2010 2:49 PM    Report this comment

UAVs are the future. This is not to say that piloted aircraft with simple, manual controls will ever disappear. There are roles and places for both.

As for transportation automation in general, automated highways are our only hope for avoiding gridlock on busy highways. I expect to see many automated highways and vehicles within 20 years. The technology is already well developed. It can increase the capacity of roads and improve safety. The devil is in the details, of course, which is why we don't have automated roads already.

The first real, certificated lightplane UAV was the Cessna Caravan UAV done by SAIC for the US Army. It could fly pre-programmed and selectable missions, and be controlled by either a ground station or an on-board pilot. Transitions between these three control modes were seamless. It could also taxi, takeoff, and land autonomously.

Nothing came of it commercially because the FAA requires "detect and avoid" capability in civilian airspace. As it stands now, a UAV in civilian airspace needs either a rated pilot on board, a piloted chase plane, or it has to be continuously monitored by ground observers to assure that it is clear of other traffic. Furthermore, even the ground-based pilots must have the appropriate FAA medical, pilot license, and ratings for the type of aircraft and mission. Not exactly an economic winner as things stand now; but as safety is validated by new developments, the economics will improve.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | March 17, 2010 2:52 PM    Report this comment

The idea of drone cargo flying around the skies keeps bringing up one thought: I wonder how well remote control and drone operators would react to a goose-aircraft encounter similar to US Air 1549?

Posted by: Russ Southgate | March 17, 2010 2:54 PM    Report this comment

I see it now, the fully automated FAA Flight Service Center of the 21st Century. We join a tour in progress:

Children this is the nerve center of all flights taking place in the US at this very minute. Little Johnny do you have a question?

"Yes, who is that in the corner encased in the glass room with all the monitors?"

Why that is the emergency back up system, during the rare outside chance of a computer glitch, he will take control of the aircraft from here and fly it safely to the nearest airport.

"So he is a real pilot, like days of old?"

Well not exactly, but he did score one million points on Flight Simulator once...

Posted by: Chuck West | March 17, 2010 3:09 PM    Report this comment

'automated highways are our only hope for avoiding gridlock...'

Please, no. I prefer looking to telecommuting, staggard work hours, traffic controls, thinning the herd... but maybe you have offered an example of exciting yet creepy on the roads to some.

Well said, Mr. West. I wonder if one would be able to buy points from MS like my son can with Call of Duty...

Posted by: David Miller | March 17, 2010 3:49 PM    Report this comment

If we can't get something simple like an accelerator - throttle interconnect or electrically driven power steering right, automated highways will be an absolute disaster.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 17, 2010 3:57 PM    Report this comment

The use of robotics has it's place. While the AF may be training more drone drivers than pilots, the reality is, there are less fighters to fly. Aircraft roles are changing from turning and burning fights to BVR shots or loiter and bomb on demand (note that authorizations for a beyond visual range shot comes with an exeptionaly robust IFF/track ID function that didn't exist in Viet Nam. If the ID is questionable then the fighter has to get a visual ID and decide for himself. That also gives the other guy a chance to return the favor and it turns into a furball) .

There are less planes to fly because the utility of a weapon system has improved tremendously, from a thousand B-17s per target in WWII to one F-117 for multiple targets with near 100% kill per target, we need fewer of them. Reports back from Red flag where F15s and F16s take on F-22s are that the F-15s never had a chance. Why? Better sensors, weapons and data links.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | March 17, 2010 6:52 PM    Report this comment

There is also about 40 years of precedent in robotic space exploration. The real discoveries in the space program have mostly been done by robots. What was the promise that came with the Space Shuttle and various manned space labs/stations etc? Miracle metals? meds? medical or biological discoveries? Where are they? It appears that humans in space is a PR or hubris thing because there is not much scientific justification. Meanwhile robots reliably and without complaint are still sending photos and data from deep space years after their design life has ended. And when we get bored we can shut the receivers off and go home with a clear conscience. Not so with manned spacecraft. That's also not an option with manned spacecraft or aircraft, but it is the ultimate answer for dangerous missions.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | March 17, 2010 6:53 PM    Report this comment

As a side note, I often wonder what people think a drone will do if it runs amok vs what has actually happened? Once again, I assume there are default modes for the airframe, and it might help the touchy-feely part of the populace to know the intended fail-safe modes. I know there are those who claim the average person hates to think too deeply about such things, but I personally only hear what is parroted from the media, so maybe it's the media who's at the shallow end of the pool.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | March 17, 2010 6:55 PM    Report this comment

For an automated airliner, I bet we'll test it with freighters in 'low density areas' and it will eventually to the CONUS as the operators gain experience. I'm quite sure there are folks in low density and low service areas that would welcome robotic freighters of any sort as long as they bring the right stuff. For them it will be a small step for mankind to go to an automated people hauler.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | March 17, 2010 6:56 PM    Report this comment

"As a side note, I often wonder what people think a drone will do if it runs amok vs what has actually happened?"

Ask the Border Patrol. They lost control of one and lost it for a few days in Arizona in 2006.

Or ask the U.S. Air Force who has to shoot them down from time to time when they go off on their own, as happened with the latest and greatest 'Reaper' late last year.

Posted by: Jim Howard | March 17, 2010 7:53 PM    Report this comment

Hang in there Mr. Connor. When an unmanned automated freighter is drawn to a low density schoolyard arrival you'll explain to us how welcome it is.

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 17, 2010 8:09 PM    Report this comment

Just to set the record straight, there are no parallels between Airbus & Boeing automation or flight control logic. The B777 & B787, while being "fly by wire" systems, are still pilot control of flight control surfaces. The "fly by wire" refers to the conversion of the analog movement of the yoke and rudder to digital input to flight control computers which then command flight control movement by hydraulic actuators. The pilot CONTROLS flight control movement. Airbus' logic is much more intrusive. The pilot never moves a flight control, he just requests permission, and if the various computers approve, the computer sends the approved signal to the flight controls. There are very persuasive arguments that the last two accidents would not have occurred to a Boeing in the same scenario.

Posted by: Burns Moore | March 17, 2010 11:22 PM    Report this comment

""Or ask the U.S. Air Force who has to shoot them down from time to time when they go off on their own, as happened with the latest and greatest 'Reaper' late last year.""

That's an accepted and expedient way of disposing of an off-course UAV before it gets to populated areas. No different than destroying unmanned missile shots that go off course from Vandenberg or Canaveral.

To Mr. Freis: An unmanned freigther that crashes into a school yard will be no different than a manned freighter.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | March 17, 2010 11:25 PM    Report this comment

"Where do you draw the line?"

Easy. UAV should only be operated by the military in combat zones or military restricted areas. They should be banned from civilian airspace.

There is no reason whatsoever for law enforcement or private companies to subject the general public to the risk of UAVs operating in public airspace.

And even if UAVs could be operated safely in the civilian system, which they can't, there is zero economic justification for them.

UAVs in military - good. UAVs in civil airspace - dangerous, expensive, stupid.

Posted by: Jim Howard | March 18, 2010 1:17 AM    Report this comment

To Mr. Connor: Duh!
To Mr. Howard: How do you get to a combat zone without going over civilians? Welcome to 2012?

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 18, 2010 3:15 AM    Report this comment

The future is about technology. In the future when we go on holiday we will simply hook up to a computer lie down and enjoy the experience. That is what a holiday is all about.

So what is so different about drones as air travel will be limited because WE (humans) have caused such chaos with our weather system, flying everywhere, that has to be stopped hence the first statement.(Whew what a sentence). Its advanced technology.

Imagine when in late 1800 people were told that you would be able to fly anywhere in the world in the future. I'm sure the majority disbelieved it and were very much against it. How many worried about airplanes falling on their heads. So in the mid 1900, there we were traveling anywhere in the world by air and the passenger sea routes almost died.

As a GA pilot my main concern is how exposed I am when flying and there is a possible drone about especially if it is small and not seen on the radar.

As for foreign powers using this technology remember in its simply form it is cheep and easy to implement which in the eyes of poorer counties is a great advantage.

So expect this technology to grow in leaps and bounds.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 18, 2010 6:47 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Howard, regarding your comment about Caravans vs UAV costs, could you please cite where you got your data from? The context regarding costs means everything.

Posted by: Michael Mullins | March 18, 2010 8:23 AM    Report this comment

Lets see it wasn't too long ago when a multi-million dollar Mars Lander, no, make that several didn't complete their mission and crashed and/or disappeared. Not sure what happened to most, but one had feet instead of meters programed into the onboard computers by the best and the brightest minds we have. Oh yeah, this is going to remove human error, just like the Titanic...

Posted by: Chuck West | March 18, 2010 8:34 AM    Report this comment

Yeah, the era of manned aircraft is over, and robotic machines will forever rule the skies.

Of course, that's what Duncan Sandys (say "Sands") wrote in the 1957 Defence White Paper. Sandys was a brilliant man who was one of Churchill's top science advisors, and one of the men behind the radar systems ("Chain Home" and others) that won the Battle of Britain. An estimable and eminent scientist and a conscientious Defence Minister.

In accordance with his White Paper, the UK cancelled all pending combat aircraft R&D, consolidated the world's second-largest aerospace industry down to two firms (the nation that produced the Camel, Vimy, Lancaster, Spitfire, Meteor, Comet and Lightning is now unable to design or build an indigenous airplane or helicopter of any kind).

UAVs, like missiles, are useful devices, They are not a panacea and they are not the future in whole.

As to Tom Connor's question about default modes, it varies based on UAV. Some circle at their current location when they "lose the plot." Some return to a preprogrammed point and land themselves. Some self-destruct. It depends on the particular machine and its particular mission. All of them are subject to the usual glitches in "good enough for government work" software, and none has a safety record that competes with similar-mission manned aircraft. I expect the future may be more in the low-end disposable end of UAVs -- think Raven rather than Reaper.

Posted by: KEVIN O'BRIEN | March 18, 2010 10:48 AM    Report this comment

As a private pilot and a researcher working for the Navy with experimental small tactical UAVs and UGVs I have mixed feelings on the subject. On the one hand, flying my small private plane over the countryside, I dont want to unexpectedly encounter a UAV on collision course any more than the other guy. On the other hand as somebody involved in R&D in the field I think I understand the technology pretty well, and inspite of comments to the contrary by uninformed commenters here, there are applications where UAVs are appropriate and those applications will grow as the technology matures.

Keep in mind that the current state of the art is still very much in its infancy. I acknowledge that as of today the accident record is not too good, but this is a result of rushing immature technology into the field. The Predator/Reaper aircraft are good examples. Not particularly operator friendly, significant failure modes, etc... In spite of that deployed Preds/Reapers have revolutionized the conflicts overseas. They will only get better as the technology matures.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 11:04 AM    Report this comment


DOD determined that the benefits outweigh the risks for Preds/Reapers and those systems were fielded in spite of their shortcomings.

The comments about UAVs raining out of the skies when the comm link breaks is nonsensical, particularly with the technology maturing. I "fly" a 20 pound helicopter that is capable of autonomous flight. I can (and have) turned off the comm radio and the UAV returns to a predetermined safe landing spot to reestablish comms. If comms arent reestablished in a predefined time, the UAV performs an autoland on the spot. This is technology that exists today and can be purchased for about $30,000. It takes 2 trained operators to "fly", and burns a couple of quarts of gasoline per hour. Its not mature enough to hand over to a municipal police department yet, but in another 5 years.... Explain to me how that is more expensive to operate than a Jet Ranger or Hughes 500?

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 11:07 AM    Report this comment

By 'where do you draw the line' I meant between which kind of UAV? There are hundreds. For example, do we include your kid's camera equipped RC model peeking at the neighbor girl; Or the Army's backpack UAV peeking over the hedge at the neighbor's artillery setup; or the college kid's solar powered sail planes; or?

Posted by: Thomas Connor | March 18, 2010 11:15 AM    Report this comment


In my opinion, the single greatest reason that current UAVs have the failure rate that they do, is that the technology development has been hampered by ridiculous draconian FAA obstruction in gaining access to airspace for test and development. FAA in the past has had a one size fits all policy toward airspace access. Its ridiculous to treat a 2 pound micro UAV the same way you would treat a Reaper. Its equally ridiculous to deny airspace access to a 10 pound 30 knot UAV, but let a hobbiest fly a 50 pound 200knot turbine powered scale F-16 virtually anywhere he wants.

But this is changing. I guarantee you will see more airspace access for UAVs granted in the future. There are see and avoid systems in development that are at least as good as a pilot's eyes, and autonomous collision avoidance algorithms in development as well. UAVs will undoubtedly be some of the first ADS-B adopters.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 11:17 AM    Report this comment

UAVs run the gamut from glorified RC models to homebuilts with an augmented autopilt to sophisticated aerial platorms that collect data, do surveillance, and/or shoot missiles. Unfortunately, most have been ill-conceived or inadequately funded; so it's easy to be critical of them.

On the other hand, with the downward trend in new pilot training ever since the 1960s, it is likely that UAVs are going to proliferate -- once they are perfected.

We will always have the side issue that anyone could launch any kind of big or small RC model into the airspace and create a hazard. It surprises me that this hasn't become a problem yet.

The "see and avoid" rule is considered fundamental by the FAA. Of course, it is barely workable in practice, but the same rule is being applied by the FAA to UAVs, under the name "detect and avoid." Until UAVs have this ability, the FAA will severely limit them. As far as I know, there is no reasonably compact, commercial radar that can automatically detect everything in the immediate airspace and predict conflicts.

Yes, there are beacon systems; and it is easy to say that everything in the air should have ADS-B, but it will never happen. Even if we get all the big birds to carry ADS equipment, the FAA will still want the "detect and avoid" capability in UAVs.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | March 18, 2010 12:17 PM    Report this comment

Gawd, I love these "what if" style of exchanges! Admittedly, I'm speculating, from ignorance, of laws, regulations, software, feedback, hardware, and communication systems.

Now, what if, through error, terror, ignorance, or maintenance of any one the afore mentioned items....? That is where I'm trying to focus. I know only of the massive effort and resources, world-wide, pouring into this air, land, and sea research. From micro to macro to hell and back, this will be a boom or bust technology that will shape the future.

So, my question is, can we plan for and negate the "boom"?

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 18, 2010 1:41 PM    Report this comment

"Mr. Howard, regarding your comment about Caravans vs UAV costs, could you please cite where you got your data from? The context regarding costs means everything."

Aviation Week has been covering this extensively. There is a reason the USAF is deploying manned King Air and Caravans to perform missions now performed by UAVs (Google 'MC-12 "manned UAV replacement').

Think about it. How could a UAV possibly be cheaper to operate? What costs does it not have that manned craft have.

You stil have pilots. But with the UAV you probably need several more pilots, since UAVs are typically need to land with line of sight to a ground station but are often controlled remotely. You also need a huge communications infrastructure that just is not required for a manned airplane. The manned airplane needs a radio you can order from Trade-a-plane. The UAV needs dedicated special purpose communications links.

Manned airplanes need a pilot to fly VFR. UAVs need a yet-to-be-invented substitute for the Mark-1 eyeball. When 'they' do invite the Cylon eye for VFR see-and-avoid I promise it will be very expensive.

'To Mr. Howard: How do you get to a combat zone without going over civilians? '

Duh! You take it apart and put it in a C-17. Or you fly an armed chase plane next to it. Or you create a TFR along its route of flight.

You DO NOT just send it into civil airspace with your fingers crossed that it won't crash or disappear, as many military UAVs have done.

Posted by: Jim Howard | March 18, 2010 1:45 PM    Report this comment

Flying is just a fad anyway. You need look no further than last week's QOTW for confirmation. In about 1998 I got an unconfirmed report (from someone well-connected and credible) that a UAV and a Piper twin collided mid-air over Maryland, and that your tax dollars bought the survivor's silence. If true, (I admit, a very big if), it would highlight that the US military is all about maximizing military power and not about saving anyoneís life.

Iíll distinguish between UAV = uninhabited vs. UAV = no pilot on board. Why would commercial airlines spend 100ís of $millions on software to replace $17K/year pilots? Not that airlines (or Airbus) always make intelligent logical decisions.

In combat, however, UAVs are the future, because they donít have to provide a crew with windows, life support, comfortable seating, ejection capability, food, water, and sanitation. UAVís can be built to turn at more than 30 Gs. No pilot can survive 12 Gs for more than a few seconds! Recall that when an onboard-piloted interceptor is shot down, you donít necessarily get to use the pilot over again. When a UAV goes ďgame-overĒ, insert another $25 Million, and resume playing. Itís only tax dollars anyway?

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | March 18, 2010 1:47 PM    Report this comment

Can't understand these telephone number costs that are being branded around.

The drones can't have too much armour and won't be able to carry weapons sufficiently large enough to do damage to land or sea vehicles. They are in danger of being shot down by someone on the ground. So apart from the recon advantage if it doesn't get too close and shot down is about where its strength is. The South African G5/G6 guns with nuclear shells can plant its load very accurately +40 miles away. This is where a lot was invested because the drone is most useful to find the targets and without danger to the spotter. Lose the UAV is too bad get another one and carry on.

To the civilian population the only real danger is getting hit by a UAV which can be considered similar to a bird strike and what a strike that will be.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 18, 2010 3:20 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Howard, your cost claims have no basis in fact. As I previously mentioned, Predator/Reaper in its current configuration is not a typical example either of what current technology or future technology is capable of. Pred/Reaper were fielded with compromised capabilities because they filled an immediate need that no other platform offered at the time. There are many other examples of UAVs current and future in all sizes that are completely capable of fully autonomous flight without a pilot in the loop.

The Army is operating thousands of UAVs both in theater and within Restricted airspace here in the US with enlisted "pilots". The cost savings in training and maintaining pilot proficiency are real.

As for airspace access.I'm intimately familiar with FAA regs (or lack thereof) when it comes to UAV access. The FAA weblink Mr. Connor referenced includes a comment that says, "the COA process works well". BS. I've been involved in the process multiple times. It requires a staggering amount of time and money to get a COA to fly even very small UAVs within the civil airspace. Those are your tax dollars being wasted. Thank god that the FAA is finally being pursuaded to be a little bit more reasonable in applying the process, even though in my opinion it is still overly burdensome in most cases.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 3:59 PM    Report this comment


Regarding see and avoid. The FAA has no definition as to what constitutes a see and avoid capability that is satisfactory. So its easier to just say no. Mr. Lancaster in his comments above indicates that there is no radar available that will serve the purpose. Again, there is no definition of what constitutes satisfactory performance. But what is implicit in both the current FAA stance and Mr. Lancaster's comments is that UAVs, even UAVs the size of a small bird, are being held to a much higher standard than manned aircraft. There's no requirement for a manned VFR aircraft to carry radar capable of detecting targets that pose a collision threat - why should a UAV have to carry such a radar? Machine vision technology can provide equivalent capability if the FAA would hold UAVs to the same see and avoid standards for airspace access that they hold manned aircraft to. For many operations of small UAVs, the aircraft is always within the view of the ground operator, but FAA still requires the incredibly burdensome COA process.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 3:59 PM    Report this comment

The civlians of the current "war zones" just might have views of UAVs which differ from some of us. When THEY take into account that the ONLY difference between the explosions that take the lives of their neighbors and themselves, or any others anywhere, is an entry of GPS co-ordinates, do they praise the march of technology? I'm leaning hard on the "creepy" side of cyber-war and its' hand-maiden "autonomous transport".

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 18, 2010 4:14 PM    Report this comment


Mr. Howard, I took your advice and googled MC-12 UAV replacement. I didnt read every article, just the first two. Both had a common theme.

The MC12 is being fielded as a replacement because the USAF cant get UAVs manufactured fast enough to meet demand. My take on that - we want UAVs but we'll settle for the MC-12.

The MC-12 requires a crew of 4 on-board and additional personnel on the ground to operate sensor payloads. Thats 4 guys flying over hostile territory on long term deployment to Afghanistan. The Pred crews go home to sleep in the beds in Las Vegas every night.

The MC-12 can fly higher than a Predator, and is faster, but has half the on station endurance and costs twice as much. Apples and oranges - a Global Hawk will fly twice as high as the MC-12, fly faster, stay on station for over 24 hours, and carry more payload than the MC-12.

Bottom line is that the USAF is accepting a compromise in the MC-12 because they cant get the the more capable platform they really want fielded fast enough.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 4:15 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Fries, I will concede to you that the ethics involved in "unmanned killer drones" are a problem. Of course a smart bomb dropped from 30,000' by an F-15 on an unsuspecting civilian group kills them just as dead. The real question from an ethical standpoint is, is it too easy to kill people halfway around the world from the comfort of your own home?

My personal opinion on the ethics in this case. Is it more ethical to drop smart bombs or fire missiles from an unmanned aircraft halfway around the world based on intel of the presence of enemy combatants versus hijacking airliners full of innocent people and flying them into buildings full of more innocent people? We didnt start this war. It seems like many in this country forget who did.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 4:27 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Wills; Thanx for the reply. Terms such as "more or less" do not fit with pregnancy or ethics. Furthermore I am refering to the "globalization" of the war. The next killer of innocents just could be an unmaned airliner or ship or bus. However you DID hit the nail on the head. All of this mayhem could be done from an easy-chair anywhere. Creepy, no?

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 18, 2010 5:18 PM    Report this comment

Mr Wills,

As I have said a couple of times now, UAVs have a very important military mission. The risks of not using them exceed the risks of having them.

Once you get above the RC model class, miltary UAVs are more expensive than manned aircraft, not less. They are worth it to the miltary, but even the military is using manned aircraft to replace UAVs where it makes, because MANNED AIRCRAFT ARE CHEAPER!

"There are many other examples of UAVs current and future in all sizes that are completely capable of fully autonomous flight without a pilot in the loop."

You're right, but that statement is not relevant. When a Global Hawk flies there is no pilot 'in the loop', correct. But there are several pilots and huge support team monitoring the flight from takeoff to touchdown.

There is no UAV now or in the foreseeable future, that can operate without a human crew to monitor it.

Posted by: Jim Howard | March 18, 2010 5:27 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Fries, I'm not sure what you mean by "more or less"? I dont really think there is any more or less in my position. Just in case, let me be clear as to what my position is.

From the viewpoint of the person killed, it makes little difference whether the bomb or missile was dropped/fired from a manned or unmanned aircraft. They are just as dead.

From the viewpoint of the combatant who drops or fires the weapon there is a clear advantage in not being in harms way.

From my viewpoint as somone who works in the R&D world to provide technology that helps our warfighters do their jobs while minimizing their exposure to risk, there's nothing creepy about it.

For policy makers I can see where there may be a creepy side to it, dependant on beliefs. But for me there's no question, nothing creepy about it.

The first battle in history where one side came armed with guns when the other side was still carrying spears raised the same sorts of questions.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 5:41 PM    Report this comment

Look at the big picture, please. All of these comments assume that UAV creep will only affect military or commercial aviation. The authorities don't like general aviation. As soon as private aircraft can be labeled a threat to the growing UAV fleet, general aviation will be gone. Having a bunch of private pilots traveling around essentially uncontrolled always been a problem for those who use terrorism and national security as an excuse for greater power over our lives. Soon we'll be banned from private aviation in the name of "keeping us safe". Enjoy being a pilot today because the next generation won't have the chance.

Posted by: Chuck Leathers | March 18, 2010 6:35 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Wills; Please excuse me for your reference "more ethical". It is clear now that you have no use for ethics in your job or life. An argument can be made that cold numbers are required in war and such. But I feel THAT thinking is selfperpetuating as in Bush/Cheney. It is obvious that you feel if you die because there is a "bad guy" nearby it is your fault. I however, would prefer to save you. I do not agree with you. But I WOULD try to save you. THAT, I would call ethical. You have given me a new slant on creepy.

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 18, 2010 6:36 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Howard, sorry but on the argument of cost we are simply going to disagree. I dont know what your opinion is based on, but the fact is that for equivalent capabilities an unmanned aircraft provides more capability and is cheaper to operate than a manned aircraft. Go back and re-read your references on the MC-12. Go back to this current AvFlash and read the blurb about the escalation in cost of the JSF. Consider the fact that for the first time in its history the USAF trained more UAV pilots than manned aircraft pilots last year. The shift is driven by capabilities and budgetary constraints. And thats why the field is growing so rapidly.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 7:29 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Fries, my ethical standard says that it is not ethical for people to hijack airplanes and kill thousands of innocents. My ethical standard says that it is not ethical for a group of combatants who would perpetrate such an action to hide among a civilian population. My ethical standard doesnt support booby traps along roadsides that indescriminately kill anyone who happens to be around.

My use of the phrase "more ethical" was in a rhetorical question. Because my moral compass does not align with yours does not mean that I lack morals or ethics.

I dont agree with you either. You say you would try to save me. But talk is cheap. While you sit and talk about morals and ethics their are guys deployed right now that actually ARE trying to save YOU. And THAT is what I call ethical. My job is to support those guys the best I can and I do so proudly.

You too have provided new meaning to the word creepy.
I guess in your perfect little world we should just turn the other cheek?

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 18, 2010 7:37 PM    Report this comment

OK, You win!

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 18, 2010 8:00 PM    Report this comment

I don't know what size your world is, lw, but it's a step toward perfect by leaving the tea-party rally that way.

I think it would behoove some to look at their anger about war and terrorism as reactions from fear. Just my opinion. And since no one can ever say when a war on 'terror' is won - one angry heart in any one of a dozen countries who hates the West is all that's needed - this veteran (and many others) says bring them all home to their families ASAP.

Posted by: David Miller | March 18, 2010 8:26 PM    Report this comment

Whew smoking.

OK so we can get a UAV to somewhere in the world and drop a couple of bombs sounds to me like a guided missile and we got plenty of them. The reason Hitler liked the missile option was that it would hit its target and not get lost following a radio signal like his UAV's were. Hitlers V1 and V2 missiles did not depend on following a radio signal to its target. And it didn't take long for the British to come up with a solution to upset the delivery of those weapons.

Modern warfare as experienced in Afghanistan is totally different to past wars so such things like UAV's may not be as effect as they would have been. Western countries are still losing many lives (Army and Air force) to unsophisticated weapons. As a fighter of terrorist I can tell you that no matter how sophisticated your weaponry its the man on the ground that has to go in and secure the area using a device that was developed several decades ago, in fact the late 1700. The rifle.

America and Britain only have themselves to blame as they have both contributed to the specialist training of those forces they today call enemies.

Sorry to bang on about this I still have a problem flying my little piper and being hit by a UAV and I would not know about it until I felt the bump.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 19, 2010 10:02 AM    Report this comment

You are 100% correct, ultimately its the grunt on the ground with a weapon in his hands that makes the difference. The group I work for works directly with those guys on the ground. All of these technology aids help him perform that job better. There is absolutely no doubt that unmanned ground vehicles have saved lives from IEDs. And there is absolutely no doubt that the ISR provided by UAVs have also saved lives.

I'm with you as well on the issue of UAVs in the airspace I use. I dont want to bump into one either. I believe it is possible for a peaceful co-existance. The one size fits all, just say no policy for airspace access is not conducive to a peaceful co-existance. Scaling access requirements with respect to potential risk, combined with meaningful see and avoid requirements that are at least equivalent to those possessed by a VFR pilot in a manned airplane make sense to me. I dont advocate Predators flying around blindly in congested Class D airspace. But I dont believe a 10 pound UAV flying below 1000'AGL in remote Class G airspace and always within view of the ground operator presents any significant risk to you, me, or anyone else. Under current rules that flight isnt possible without a COA which requires a ton of bureacracy, months of time, and many thousands of $.

Posted by: Mike Wills | March 19, 2010 10:56 AM    Report this comment

WAR is a hormonal malfunction which releases virulent mental toxins. It destroys everything including its' host. It can turn an R/C hobby into a cruise missile and a fearful mother into an autonomous bomb. "Don't worry. Be happy". I fear anything that has no natural negative feedback system. Politics and technology are driving all of us into uncharted and unchecked territory. Am I alone? Do others see a cloudy future? "Don't worry. Be happy".

Posted by: Larry Fries | March 19, 2010 11:09 AM    Report this comment

Mike I know where you are coming from I've been there developing some very intricate weapons for warfare but try telling the folks at Wootton Bassett that the UAV's are saving lives. They diligently pay their respects to another (or several) servicemen/women dying in the duty of their country.

My problem (sorry I'm just moaning) is that here in the UK our class G is getting hammered from all sides. If its not the airports wanting to expand their control of airspace its the military and now its UAV's. Large parts of Northwest Wales is restricted area for UAV's and there is a move to create more restricted areas around the country.

The airports are expanding because they want protection from all other types of flying objects. The military want more airspace for their low level training. UAV's want more for testing.

And little old me in the center, every time I look up see more of my free space being taken away. I believe what is happening here in UK will happen in Europe and USA.

I have buried many of my mates who died for our freedom and now see that it was all in vain, because 1984 is happening we are going to be restricted in everything we do including the freedom to fly, the freedom to drive or travel.

Enough moaning its time to go flying again (while I can ;-))

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 19, 2010 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Sorry lost the plot: should read Large parts of Northwest Wales is restricted area for UAV's use only and ...

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 19, 2010 12:06 PM    Report this comment

As I've said, UAVs make sense in the military context for many missions, but they are often more expensive than an equivalent manned aircraft.

Bert Rutan pointed out a couple of Oshkosh's ago that if the U-2/TR-1's had the safety record of the UAVs we would have run out of these aircraft decades ago.

Nobody in this thread has provided a single rational reason for a civil UAV.

Do we not all agree that any UAV operating in civil airspace must have a pilot? Probably more than one?

As I pointed out a manned airplane needs a radio you can order from Trade-a-plane. UAVs needs the same radios as the manned airplane, but it also needs a very expensive satellite based communications system.

At the next Oshkosh, look at the huge support infrastructure the Border Patrol had to buy to operate their UAVs.

Caravans would have been a fraction of the cost.

There is no rational justification for UAVs above the RC model class for any civilian purpose, including law enforcement.

Posted by: Jim Howard | November 1, 2010 4:54 PM    Report this comment

There is absolutely no doubt that unmanned ground vehicles have saved lives from IEDs. And there is absolutely no doubt that the ISR provided by UAVs have also saved lives.
assignment writing

Posted by: Rocky Nasha | April 12, 2011 1:08 AM    Report this comment

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