Friday, July 31, 2009

Rise of the robot warplanes

Rise of the robot warplanes

An Equipment and Logistics news article
July 31, 2009

The Ministry of Defence's London headquarters yesterday, Thursday 30 July 2009, hosted an exhibition of the latest Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) giving military and civilian staff a chance to gather their own intelligence on the future of military aviation. Report by Shell Daruwala.

Last week marked the centenary of aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot's 1909 first powered flight across the English Channel. Today, the Ministry of Defence has signed a contract for the third phase of Typhoon - an aircraft so advanced that it takes a hugely complex suite of on-board computers just to keep it in the sky.

Simultaneously, in the skies over Afghanistan, battlefield commanders' need for high quality round-the-clock real-time aerial intelligence is driving forward the development of a new breed of aircraft - the Unmanned Air Systems; autonomous robot planes which many believe could replace manned combat aircraft altogether within a generation.

Cambridge and Harvard alumnus Quentin Davies, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, is clear about where he lies on the subject:

"My own working assumption is that although we certainly need the manned combat aircraft, and are investing in some very good ones at the moment; we hope to sign the contract for the third phase of Typhoon [today] and, as you know, we are purchasing the first three JSF [Joint Strike Fighter] aircraft to take part in the training, testing and evaluation phase of that, and that will take us through to the 2030s, but beyond that I think the name of the game will be UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]," he said.

Surrounded by display stands with life-sized and scale models of a futuristic squadron of exotically-named aircraft (Hermes, Zephyr, Mantis, Taranis, HERTI...) that appear to have come straight from the set of a sci-fi movie, it is difficult to ground yourself in the reality that some of these systems are already proving their worth in theatre.

Lockheed Martin's Desert Hawk III, operated by the Royal Artillery, is a relatively low-cost, hand-launched mini-UAS used for short-range, low-altitude intelligence-gathering, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capable of being operated day or night from a portable ground control station.

Also operated by the Royal Artillery is the Elibit Systems Hermes 450, a medium-sized, medium-altitude UAV capable of remaining airborne for over 20 hours at a time, sending ISTAR information to battlefield commanders on the ground.

Hermes is due to be replaced by the Watchkeeper UAS in 2010. Based on the Hermes, Watchkeeper brings a de-icing capability allowing it to fly for longer periods through the winter months and will be fitted with an advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) able to produce incredibly detailed imagery of the area of operations below.

The now infamous Reaper Hunter/Killer UAV is operated jointly between the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force. It is currently the UK's only UAS capable of locating and engaging enemy targets on the ground.

Reaper's payload is impressive and the UAV is able to carry various combinations of smart weapons including Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.

These are just three examples of UAS already in service.

Some of the more advanced UAS such as BAE Systems HERTI (High Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion) are able to carry out on board image comparison, alerting operators to potential areas of interest. This helps to swiften the analysis of the high volumes of data gathered during a single flight.*

One of the more advanced systems at yesterday's event was QinetiQ's spindly, solar-powered Zephyr high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAV, which, in August 2008, completed an 82-hour flight, unofficially breaking the record for the longest unmanned flight. QinetiQ is developing the Zephyr to operate at altitudes in excess of 55,000 feet (16,800m) for months at a time. A QinetiQ spokesman said:

"Zephyr is able to be fitted with a lightweight comms relay, effectively allowing it to act as a low-altitude satellite for battlespace communications."

Through Government co-operation with industry partners such as QinetiQ, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Thales, the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) UAS Team has invested millions of pounds in the development of future UAS:

"Almost all the systems on display here today have had some UK Government funding and we're on contract for quite a number of them," said Mr Davies.

"We've got to work out the right solutions to the UAVs of the future and, quite clearly, that requires partnership. We really need to get the benefit of insights which industry have and, conversely, they need to know the lines along which we are thinking and what our specifications are going to be."

Some of the fruit of these partnerships, like the addition of SAR to the Watchkeeper, will be ready to support battlefield commanders in the near future. Others, such as Taranis - a concept project designed to test the realms of possibility for UAV technology - may never see service.

But Quentin Davies is certain that the investments being made today are laying the foundations for the future of military aviation technology:

"Unmanned Air Systems go the whole range from purely tactical systems like, for example, Desert Hawk... which provides wonderful situational awareness to infantry deployed on the ground in dangerous situations, right the way through to [systems such as Mantis and Taranis] which really are the future of combat aircraft," he said.

"I think most people would agree that [the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter or Joint Combat Aircraft as it will be known here in the UK] is likely to be the last manned combat aircraft and so future bombers and future interceptors and so forth in 20 or 30 years time will all be a result of the kind of investment which you're seeing in this technology today.

"We shall be able to save the weight currently involved in having a pilot with an ejector seat and various systems that pilots have to have - we shall achieve greater endurance as a result, because pilots can't sit around for 18 hours or three days in an aircraft. We shall achieve many advantages from UAVs, but we are a very long way from being in a position today where we can replace manned combat aircraft systems with UAVs, but we must work on these things, we must invest in these things, and what you see here is a reflection of what we're doing."

* Correction to original copy - Reaper does not currently have the technology to make autonomous decisions on what information to send back to its operators.

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