There’s a drone in your life
Lieutenant Uchatius could not have expected it at the time but his novel attack on Venice in August 1849 has become an important date in the history of modern aviation.world Updated: Aug 05, 2012 01:15 IST
Lieutenant Uchatius could not have expected it at the time but his novel attack on Venice in August 1849 has become an important date in the history of modern aviation.
The Austrian army officer launched 200 “balloon bombs”, controlled by lengths of copper wire and timed fuses, over the city in an attempt to get the Venetians to surrender. He may not have been the mother of invention but he may well have been the father of a new weapon: the military drone.
More than 160 years later, technology is driving military and civilian uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into remarkable areas.
While UAVs, commonly known as drones, are best known for attacks on al Qaeda supporters — and bystanders — in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, they are already being used for police surveillance, monitoring fires and inspecting wind turbines, crops, high buildings and power lines. Once they can fly in mixed airspace, their roles will proliferate.
The possibilities are seemingly endless. On the smallest scale, living moths have been implanted with electrodes in their nervous systems to control their movements. On the grandest, UAVs could be flying in civilian airspace by the end of this decade, some aviation experts believe.
At Farnborough airshow in July, Craig Lippett, of the UAS training programme, said he had been approached by the Welsh Development Agency, which said it was interested in “using drones to count sheep”.
This potential is one of the reasons why the UAV sector is the most dynamic of the aviation industry. It is worth an estimated $6 billion a year, according to US market analyst, the Teal Group. And that figure is expected to double within 10 years. This potential has been accompanied by fears among scientific critics and human rights groups that downgrading the “man in the loop” means devolving life and death decisions to airborne robots.
Those anxieties are unlikely to be allayed as established arms manufacturers and various start-up firms jostle for position in the competitive field.
A crucial piece of technology that is needed to take UAVs to the next level is a robust “sense and avoid” system allowing unmanned planes to fly safely in busy airspace. Arms maker BAE Systems is confident this development is within reach and that UAVs will be able to manoeuvre safely in civilian airspace by 2020.
Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, BAE’s engineering director (systems and strategy), said: “We need to design products that fit in everywhere. We want to open up [civilian] airspace. At the moment you can’t fly UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] in unsegregated airspace and you can’t exploit the commercial market. You have to replace the responsibilities of the pilot.”
Dopping-Hepenstal said Astrea, a collaboration between aerospace firms and the UK government, was looking at all the issues needed to persuade air traffic regulators that civilian drones were safe.
“They have to behave correctly even if they lose communications links to the ground. They must be able to behave as safely as a human pilot.” Even then, he added, there would be little point deploying them on holiday charter flights.
“It’s about long endurance activities like search and rescue. You can put them into places where you couldn’t put a human — for example, an ash cloud.
“In Fukushima, after the Japanese earthquakes, they used a small UAV to assess damage and radiation. There’s no night flying in fighting forest fires: they let them burn during the hours of darkness.” A drone could carry on dousing flames overnight. The CAA says 120 companies and other organisations have been given approval to fly UAVs in Britain.
Drone technology is rapidly spreading around the globe and for the moment the military is still driving innovation. Since losing aircraft to Syrian missile batteries in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel has been a leading developer of UAVs. It sells the vehicles to US, India and European armies. Working with the US manufacturer Northrop Grumman, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) had a contract to fly them over Iraq.
The UK’s Watchkeeper UAV, a military “target acquisition” spotter is based on an Israeli prototype. A spokesman for IAI said the firm had sold $1 billion worth of drones “over the last few years”.
More than 50 countries now manufacture or use drones. China, for example, makes the Yilong drone (which translates as “pterodactyl”). Beijing has said it will sell the armed surveillance UAV, equivalent to the US Predator, to Pakistan and other countries. Pakistan is among the many countries that has an active UAV research or manufacturing programme.
Limitations and criticism
Sustaining long-endurance flights for persistent surveillance or loitering above targets is a recurrent problem for designers. In the US, Sandia National Laboratories explored the possibility of nuclear-powered drones but suspended work because of public antipathy towards what would amount to a dirty bomb if the device crashed.
One US air force strategist, Adam Lowther, suggested the USAF replace its strategic bombers with drones capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The White House has shown no enthusiasm for adopting the idea.
One big weakness of UAVs is their reliance on radio signals. DSTL is eager to improve anti-jamming technology to prevent unmanned aircraft being disabled mid-flight or even hijacked.
Critics of drones, such as the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), warn that as communications can easily be disrupted there will be a drive towards greater automation of the technology, including selection of targets.
Drone makers and developers often focus on civilian uses of the technology to try to stop it being demonised in the media.
The US-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, issued a code of conduct, noting that: “Whether it is aiding search and rescue efforts, navigating through airspace too hazardous for manned vehicles, or furthering scientific research, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and most importantly, saving lives.”
Guardian News Service