● Is UAV the future of military aviation ?
First, what is a UAV ? It means “unmanned air vehicle”.
This term is used to refer to military combat drones. These aricrafts have no on-board pilot. Operational drones are predominantly under real-time human control, according to the levels of autonomy of the UAV and data communication. The pilot (also called operator) is based at the air field, in a specific section, which looks like a real cockpit.
I will develop two mains parts that are going to deal with the history, and the specific use of UAV.
The first explorations of the concept of combat drone were made by Dr. Lee DeForest (the inventor of radio devices) and U.A. Sanabria (a TV engineer). Their idea of combat drone was published in a 1940 publication of Popular Mechanics.
The modern military drone as known today is the brainchild of John Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist. In 1971, Foster was a model airplane hobbyist and had the idea that this hobby could be applied to building weapons. He drew up plans and by 1973 the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) built two prototypes called “Praeire” and “Calere”, powered by a modified lawn-mower engine which could stay aloft for two hours while carrying 13kg of load. (this 13kg of load could be used to carry weapons, for example)
In the late 80s, Iran deployed a drone armed with six RPG-7 in the Iran-Iraq war. This was the first time that an armed drone was used in war.
The first “UAV war” was during the first Gulf war. After the Gulf war succesfully demonstrated their utility, armies throughout the world invested widely in the domestic and military development of UAV (so UCAV, C for combat).
In recent years, the USA have increased their use of drone strikes in Pakistan as part of the War on Terrorism.
Specific use UCAV
These types of airplane are mainly used for tactical missions (spying, aerial survey, etc.), but also for strategic bombing if used in war countries.
Drones can fly alone and can achieve some results through their own autonomy system : flying from point A to point B, detecting intruders, vehicle’s movement on the ground, detecting other airplanes, etc...
However, even with all these qualities, UAV are not 100% autonomous : they need an operator (=pilot) to achieve some precise stages in a flight like taking-off, dogfighting (= specific term for aerial fighting) (if necessary), taking into account weather conditions, and landing. (dire aussi à quelle distance l’opérateur doit /peut être de l’engin, en km…)
Because the operator isn’t in the drone, but at the airbase, there is no equipment for a human pilot inside the drone : no seat, no system to bring oxygen to the pilot, no flight instruments, no cockpit, no ejection system, etc. This result in a lower weight and size than for a equivalent manned aircraft. This can allow for greater payloads, load factors, range and maneuverability.
As an example, in 2013, Boeing retrofitted multiple Lockheed Martin F-16s (pas d’apostrophe) (called QF-16) with UAV technology. The company demonstrated combat maneuvers including barrel rolls, a Split S and a perfect center line landing. During the test flight, the QF-16 cruised at 12,000m and reached A speed of Mach 1,47 (1500 km/h). The aircraft reached a 7Gs load factor, but is expected to regularly operate at 9Gs.
UAVs typically fall into one of six functional categories :
Target and decoy – provides ground and aerial gunnery / a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
Reconnaissance – provides battlefield intelligence
Combat – provides attack capability for high-risk missions
Logistics – UAV specifically designed for cargo and logistic operation
Research and development – used to further develop UAV technologies to be integrated into field deployed UAV aircraft
Civil and Commercial UAV – UAV specifically designed for civil and commercial applications
UAV are also categorised according to their range, and the altitude that they operate. Altitude could be between 5000m and 20000m, autonomy can be up to 40hours. UAV can also be stealth.
UAV are equipped with remote sensing functions that include electromagnetic spectrum sensors, gamma rays sensors, biological and chemical sensors (use of laser spectroscopy to analyze the concentrations of each element in the air). So that it is possible to find thermal imaging or infrared cameras aboard a UAV.
UAV is a new technology that has made significant progress in the last few years. After the first Gulf War, UAV showed that they are essential in today’s conflicts. This will soon mark a turning point in the next mitlitary actions where UAV will be the key of the success.
As far as aviation is concerned, UAV will renew the way airplanes fly usually, because drones are lighter, and there is no pilot inside anymore...
Flight domain will be soon limited by the machine and mechanical laws and not by the pilot’s capacities to accept high load factors.
Nowadays, regular airlines plane’s could fly without on board pilot. The only limiting factor is that people who are in the plane are not ready to fly without pilot abord yet, so this is an economic reason. This isn’t a technogical reason anymore...