The Airspace is Alive with UAVs

E-mail Melanie Martella

Or at least, that's the impression I got from reading the news when Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and the U.K.'s ministry of defense all showed off new and impressive unmanned aerial vehicles. Love them or hate them, UAVs are here to stay; and considering their utility for both military and civilian purposes, that's not exactly a surprise. What is surprising, however, is the increasing variety.

In the summary for Visiongain's "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Market", appears the following tidbit: "Based on Visiongain's research, global spending in 2009 on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) reached $5.1bn. Over the forecast period of 2010-2020, the cumulative UAV market will total nearly $71bn." This figure encompasses a variety of types of unmanned aerial vehicle-from the small to the life-sized-as well as the different uses to which they are suited, be it reconnaissance, combat support, border security, and data gathering for fighting wildfires, to name but four.

Helicopters are such versatile and useful aircraft that it was inevitable that unmanned versions would be developed. Although the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter had its first flight in 2002, a later version is prepping for U.S. Navy field tests later this year (I'll add that, if the Wikipedia entry on the Fire Scout is accurate, there's been a fair amount of on-again, off-again from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army as far as ordering goes.) and just last month a team from Carnegie Mellon and Piasecki Aircraft Corp. demonstrated a fully autonomous, full-sized helicopter. So, the technology exists and is improving all the time but hasn't (as far as I can tell) been used particularly widely.

Earlier this week Boeing unveiled its Phantom Eye, a hydrogen-powered unmanned vehicle designed to stay up at 65,000 ft. for up to 4 days, and intended for data collection and communications. It's slated for its first flight some time in 2011 and considering its abilities and its green credentials, it should be an interesting project to watch.

And, finally, there's the Taranis, from the U.K.'s Ministry of Defense. The concept design for a long-range unmanned strike plane is intended to show off the technology and capabilities. The aircraft should undergo flight testing next year. In the BBC News article, "MoD lifts lid on unmanned combat plane prototype", there's a lovely quote from Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, discussing the parallels between the development of UAVs and the development of manned aircraft during World War I: "First they were used for reconnaissance, then they were armed for bombing and ground attack missions and they eventually became air-to-air combat craft."

Maybe while we rejoice in the technological advancements we can also spend some time thinking long and hard about the issues surrounding their use.