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June 26, 2008

UAVs could dominate hostile, friendly skies

Posted: 04:47 PM ET

The highly trained military aviator moves the stick right and rolls in on a target— an Al Queda training complex in Iraq somewhere near the Syrian border.

Source: Getty Images. UAVs, like the Predator, have already logged over half a million flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pilot selects Hellfire missiles, pulls the trigger, and blasts the installation into oblivion. He then pulls up, sets course for home, slides back in his rolling chair and takes a sip of coffee. He is sitting in a dark room almost 6,000 miles away from his aircraft.

Step aside Maverick and Goose. This past March, the United States Air Force announced it will be seeking an increased budget for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, from $334 million in 2008 to $540 million next year—a 60 percent increase.

If military decision-makers have their way, the heyday of aerial dogfighting performed by hot shot pilots will be a thing of the past. UAVs already play an integral role in the country’s current conflicts, having already logged over half a million flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given these surprising statistics, many military pilots fear that their jobs may be in jeopardy. It’s borderline science-fiction to think that a pilot, who has trained for hundreds of hours, could be replaced by an autonomous flying machine.

A close friend of mine, a midshipman at the Naval Academy, is convinced that he’ll be among the last generation of military pilots that will actually fly an aircraft from the inside.

But are military strategists letting their enthusiasm for unmanned vehicles run wild? Some want to begin to employ autonomous robots capable of making their own kill decisions—a scary prospect for industry experts.

In friendly skies over the United States, non-military pilots are concerned about UAVs, too. During my first flying lesson, my instructor taught me the simple skills required for dodging mid-air collisions: “see and avoid” he called it.

But as UAVs take on more roles in law enforcement, border patrol, aerial surveying, and other peacetime missions, how well will they see, avoid, and communicate with other aircraft in the nation’s already busy airspace? That’s still to be determined.

The Frederick, Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a lobbying group for pilots of general aviation airplanes, advocates that any UAV integration into the national airspace system must be conducted without any harm to the current civilian airspace user.

As a pilot myself, sharing airspace with remote-control flying machines gives me the heebie jeebies. Still, the FAA has not outlined a definitive plan on how to deal with manned and unmanned aircraft sharing the same piece of sky.

Will the future of aviation remain human after all?

– Pete Muntean, CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: Aviation • robotics • science

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Wally   June 26th, 2008 5:03 pm ET

Every city should have at least one. If you drive 57mph on a 55mph highway, the UAV can take a snap shot and pay for itself in a week. If the citation isn't paid, the UAV can send a Hellfire to knock on the door. This is a no-brainer.

S Callahan   June 26th, 2008 5:52 pm ET

I think UAV's have their usefullness, perhaps limiting it's military use for only war time would helpful....I doubt we'll loose our pilots to this though because so much is advancing in avaiation ....we'll need these guys to fly our circular planes -) . I'm more concern with privacy invasion, or midair collision with commerical fliers, having this thing fly around by remote.

joe   June 26th, 2008 6:51 pm ET

It is pretty scary to think about sharing the skies with unmaned planes.

6ftrabbit   June 26th, 2008 7:52 pm ET

Nothing to worry about. If a vacuum cleaner can navigate itself around your house, I'm sure the technology in a UAV can handle aerial avoidance. Besides, the basic technology has been around for about 50 years. Ever hear of the BOMARC? You just weren't aware of it till recently. What do you think a cruise missile is?

T1000   June 26th, 2008 8:21 pm ET

Who are these "military strategists" that want robots to make their own kill decisions? I find this pretty hard to believe. That is, unless, you were labeling someone who plays World of War Craft a military strategist.

Franko   June 27th, 2008 2:25 am ET

Killer Robots, that is what we need ?
Self awareness, without morals, remorse, or conscience !

Please, on the scale of insects, first.
Kill mosquitoes, cockroaches. Laser them into miniature mushroom clouds !
Add mice, which are not soil trained, to the list.

Patrolling for Mexican farm labourers ?
No ! let them pick the fruit, and eat all they can.

Larian LeQuella   June 27th, 2008 9:05 am ET

As a military pilot that also has worked extensively with UASs, I can safely say that we will not be taking man out of the loop totally for a long time yet. This is an exciting field for sure, but I think that some people are getting over enamoured with it. Just think back to different technologies that came of age in the past 30 years, and then how many of them came to fruition in the manner envisioned? It's generally the things that strategists DON'T see coming that changes the world. 😉

Bugs   June 27th, 2008 10:45 am ET

Mr. LaQuella is probably right. In the 50s and 60s, the military was all wrapped up with big, computerized, missile-shooting fighter aircraft. This led to great technological advances – a lot of the electronic wizardry we take for granted today. But then they ran into the North Vietnamese with their cheap little MiG-17s and found they had to re-think some of their ideas about aerial combat.

Could be UAVs will follow a similar curve. The military will be all excited about them and achieve some brilliant things technologically. Then the Russians or Chinese or some third-world country will surprise us and the UAV/MAV equation will change.

Pablo   June 27th, 2008 11:56 am ET

Funny there is concern about midairs. Remote piloted aircraft have been involved in busy combat airspace for years with not one single midair. Combat airspace is more dynamic than the structured civilian airspace with victor airways and jet routes. There is always a pilot at the controls of these "unmanned" aircraft. They have radios to be in constant two way comms with air traffic control and other pilots. The larger remote piloted aircraft have transponders. What's the concern for traffic collision avoidance? A pilot is controlling the machine at all times. In comms and squawking. The only difference is the man machine interface. The cockpit isn't in the aircraft. Other than that, no difference. The amount of computers and airspace/traffic/weather data available to the pilot is limited only to the size of the room the 'cockpit' is in.

Mark   June 27th, 2008 12:35 pm ET

Uh pablo I think the concern about UAV collisions just might be justified. Look at the picture of the UAV above and consider just how visible that will be to your average civilian pilot.

Billy Lee   June 27th, 2008 1:29 pm ET

Go look up the statistics about airline crashes. By far the largest reason is pilot error. Perhaps removing pilots will result in fewer not more accidents.

Franko   June 27th, 2008 1:39 pm ET

There is considerable communications delay, similar to talking on a satellite link. Add computer processing at both ends, human reaction, and the piloting is not real time.

Avoiding surface to air missiles is best done with onboard computer decisions. Higher G tolerance, and when the onboard computer takes over, large dogfight advantsges.

RoboDog, controlled from far away places versus
RealDog, with reflexes from his whiskers ?

The Bald Monkey   June 27th, 2008 2:03 pm ET

I'm not sure being concerned about the things size is really all that important. The Predator drone is bigger than your average Cessna and they are only getting bigger with new development. Newer ones being developed for the Navy right now are about the size of an F/A-18 as they are being built to launch from aircraft carriers.

Still, I personally have no fear of the human in cockpit pilot going away completely. Though I can imagine there will be fewer of them making it an even harder field to fight your way into in the future.

michael   June 27th, 2008 2:11 pm ET

I welcome our future robot masters.

Oshkosh 2008 » Blog Archive » Fellow OSHer published on   June 27th, 2008 3:58 pm ET

[...] [...]

MarlinPerkins   June 27th, 2008 5:01 pm ET

"What’s the concern for traffic collision avoidance?"

That there are RULES that strictly prohibit use of such devices BECAUSE of the chance of midair collisions. The "pilot" of such a UAV's are looking DOWN most of the time to do the job of observation. That means that the rules of see-and-avoid are not happening from the UAV. The real pilot (with his family on-board) is alone in the task of see-and-avoiding these small, unlit, radar invisible machines at twilight.

The only place they make sense is in a war zone. Flying these things at low altitudes in VFR airspace and HOPING that unprofessional VFR pilots are able to miss them is pure insanity.

S Callaha   June 27th, 2008 5:18 pm ET

Franko, you make a good point in both your comments....hmmm

AZ   June 28th, 2008 1:40 am ET

mark, marlinperins: when in civ airspace, these "things" have the same lighting as any other small aircraft. see-and-avoid is out the window obviously for the UAV pilot, but as for now, any transition through civ airspace is controlled through filed flight plans. plus with on board radios and transponders, not to mention the land line telephone that sits next to the pilot on the ground, one could argue that it's possibly safer in that aspect with one never having to worry about losing radios and having no contact with anyone at all.

Plus just because they are called UAV's doesn't mean they are unmanned, it takes just as many people to operate day to day a "UAV" as it does a manned military aircraft.

Pablo   June 28th, 2008 4:15 am ET

Mark – the picture above is an MQ-9 Reaper with a wingspan of 66ft, which is greater than the 59ft wingspan of an A-10 Warthog. If your average civilian pilot can't see an aircraft the size of an A-10... umm maybe those people shouldn't be flying.

Franko – the delay on comms with these things is not much at all. It's near instantaneous. How do you think they are coordinating working altitudes and attack runs with the guys on the ground getting shot at if the piloting is not realtime? I've personally heard pilots on the radio having brain farts lasting considerably longer than the miniscule delay with remote piloted aircraft comms.

MarlinPerkins – The crews are limited to which cameras they are looking through and where the cameras are pointed. That is correct. However, these cameras can swivel 360 degrees and can be set to infrared. The infrared camera can easily see the heat signature of any sized aircraft way better than the human eyball can see in the visible spectrum and from greater distances. Do you know any pilots who can scan a full 360 degrees around their aircraft in infrared?

And IFR flight is no problem. Aircraft flying on IFR flight plans aren't looking outside the cockpit much either. TFR's are always an option. The remote piloted aircraft squawking and in comms with the controlling agency at all times. These are not "small unlit radar invisible machines" when they are equipped with a normal transponder and have nav and strobe lights just like any other FAR certified aircraft.

Again, combat airspace is way more dynamic than the airspace here in the states and not one midair has occured in combat airspace. And they are flying in the same airspace as all the fighters, cargo, helos, and remote piloted aircraft in the inventory. All airspeeds, all altitudes.


FreshMeatz   June 28th, 2008 4:26 am ET

Once AI is integrated we will see a whole new era of matrix and terminator all rolled into one world government. Human race is in threat.

Vick   June 28th, 2008 1:44 pm ET

Hey Wally, I just love your comment. Thanks

Chris P   June 28th, 2008 6:26 pm ET

GREAT ARTICLE! I love your style and the depth of your knowledge is evident. Kudos!

Rick Blackmon   June 28th, 2008 6:37 pm ET

I don't ever see UAV's being used as traffic control. I don't believe it could survive the stringent standards it would have to meet for safety of the general public. I also think there would be a million lawsuits for invasion of privacy.


Darren   June 28th, 2008 7:45 pm ET

In response to the comment that these robots should be made on a miniature scale first – that's not as safe as it sounds . . . the military is looking into using swarms of miniature robots to work collectively to perform tasks, so if they were armed they'd be a much more frightening prospect than an airplane that flies by itself. As others have pointed out, autonomous aircraft technology is quite old 🙂

P   June 29th, 2008 12:17 pm ET

I watched a movie Called Wargames: The Dead Code were the U.S. has automated UAV's patrolling the skies of everynation ready to stike if even a hint of a possible torrist connection is precived. And i do mean just a hint one computer decides that only a hint of a terror conection must be attacked and no human analylis is used to point to any evidance of any crime. So bacially the U.S. has become the greatest Toorest in the world becasue it is so afraid of everyone in the world, so it prosocutes its secret war on the world from the skies with UAV's!

Steve   June 30th, 2008 2:00 am ET

I am amazed that no one questions the use of these aircraft on our own civilian populace. The unquestioned erosion of civil rights in our country (U.S.A.) has given the government tremendous powers they never used to have. Our fourth amendment rights have all but disappeared. We are now open to search and seizure anytime we venture forth from our homes, just as the early colonists were subject to be stopped and searched by the redcoats at will. And with thermal imaging technology and other technologies we are no longer even secure in our homes. Do people truly beleive that old saw: "I'm from the government. I'm here to help you?" Maybe the Indians were only the first to end up on tightly controlled reservations. Maybe it will be in everyone's future.

C   June 30th, 2008 5:07 am ET

I'd rather see a fighter jet piloted by a human being zooming overhead during Superbowl half-time rather than a cold computer controlled robot flying overhead.

Where's the art in the job, nowadays?

P.S. Anyone ever see the Terminator movies?

justin   June 30th, 2008 10:44 am ET

I think major cities all over the U.S. should have a few of these. Especially for Search and Rescue. They could be going for hours and hours on end looking, where people on the ground can only go for so long before they have to go to sleep, or go eat... I too would like to see more "desk pilots". It just makes sense to save pilots lives rather than get blown out of the sky.

Dane   June 30th, 2008 2:03 pm ET

Great article. It certainly does seem like automation is the future. Still, for all you "man vs. machine" concerned citizens, at least the enemy will conveniently already be in the crosshairs of any rogue robots who decide to act against humanity.

MarlinPerkins   June 30th, 2008 2:22 pm ET

To AZ, " any transition through civ airspace is controlled through filed flight plans. plus with on board radios and transponders"

Civilian pilots do not have access to anyone else flight plans(in fact, we don't even file our own most of the time) and they certainly don't have on-board radar to "see" the targets. Civilian pilots are usually not even in radio contact with air traffic control. The ONLY way for most VFR civilian pilots to avoid the is using eyeballs.

Also the rules of see-and-avoid require BOTH aircraft to react in specific ways to help avoid a collision. These aircraft do not "fit" into the VFR civilian airspace system and that's why when they fly they have to be operated in airspace that's closed off from traffic(a TFR). I for one don't want entire areas of civilian airspace restricted just so every little city can have spy drones circling around.

Chris   June 30th, 2008 2:34 pm ET

UAVs are already in use in this country for taking aerial photos for land developers, tax maps, and border patrol.

Earl   June 30th, 2008 3:25 pm ET

Our "unit" of air power seems to be a pilot who takes 5 years and $1,000,000 to train, and a $75,000,000 plane. The UAV brings down the unit of air power quite a bit. It may give us an option of risking 2 UAVs instead of a pilot and plane, which would be an easy choice to make.
Maybe they (UAVs + pilot/plane) could work together like an aircraft carrier and its support ships. I doubt the human will be taken out of the loop for the most important decisions, take the human out of the loop for mundane decisions.

MarlinPerkins   June 30th, 2008 4:52 pm ET

"The UAV brings down the unit of air power quite a bit. It may give us an option of risking 2 UAVs instead of a pilot and plane, which would be an easy choice to make."

No, you can put a pilot in a prop plane cheaper than creating a remote control system for a prop plane. We used to call them "observation planes" and they are dirt cheap. Training a pilot for a Prop plane can be done for 20 grand, NOT 1 million. The Observation planes can be bought used for 100K, not the 3 million for a Cadillac UAV.

The UAV only reduce risk to a pilot. The system itself is awfully expensive for what a UAV actually does.

Jim   July 4th, 2008 10:53 am ET

The term UAV seems to be misunderstood.

There is a human being behind every UAV that has more control and is able to focus on flying just as much as a pilot who is in his vehicle.

Control and sensor technology, waypoint navigation, pre-programmed missions, and auomated escapes in all possible situations makes umanned, un-monitored UAV's as safe as a piloted vehicle, or a ground controlled pilotless vehicle.

If communications is lost, the UAV has a pre-programmed response that will safely ground it or bring it home.

Franko   July 4th, 2008 11:14 pm ET

Everything remotely, centrally controlled, even the Taxicab cannot be terrorist hijacked. Maybe leave bicycles under local control ?

Wally   July 7th, 2008 4:01 pm ET

A video game with similar visuals, controls, etc should be distributed online so that we can find some above average game players in the 13-17 year old age range to control these UAV's. Youth's are really "advanced" joy stick users.

MarlinPerkins   July 15th, 2008 8:26 am ET

I've seen them test the UAV's that large cities would purchase. They are NOT the large sophisticated UAV's you see in military use. The main demand is by law enforcement and law enforcement wants STEALTH. Law enforcement does not want a UAV to be all lit up with strobe anti collision lights and they prefer smaller UAV (not the huge intercontinental ranged UAV's of the military). They also feel the need to launch "when needed" so there are no warnings issued to pilots in pre-flight briefings. Basically civilian pilots have to see-and-avoid what the police department is trying their best to hide.

I saw the local law enforcement test UAV's, and they they had no concept of airspace. They launched up into navigable airspace and specifically not even tell the press or the FAA about the launch.

Don't try to convince me that local cops primary mission is to be safe first (and then do the mission). I've seen otherwise.

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