How times have changed.
The Air Force years ago regarded unmanned aircraft as a distraction from their real flying missions. Now surveillance drones are becoming mainstream and the Air Force is even exploring a broader range of future missions for unmanned systems.
“There’s potential for various wide-body missions, whether cargo or air refueling, or command and control,” says Col. Eric Mathewson, director of the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft systems task force.
The group has put together an unmanned aircraft “flight plan” that examines the potential for remotely piloted systems in the Air Force through 2047.
“For many missions in the Air Force, it may be a viable alternative,” says Mathewson, who recently was a group commander and a squadron commander at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., where he flew the Predator and Reaper on hundreds of combat sorties.
The task force applied the unmanned concept to missions as diverse as electronic attack, combat search and rescue and long-range strike.
“You think of UAS not necessarily replacing but augmenting the traditional manned force, and in those terms, there’s potential for what we call ‘loyal wingmen,’ for a number of missions, where you might have a traditionally manned aircraft flying in conjunction with, and maybe controlling, unmanned aircraft,” says Mathewson.
There are some missions, such as those flown by fighter jets and attack airplanes that will never be automated or left solely for unmanned aircraft to accomplish. “There’s no way you can replace an F-35 or F-22 or something like that that’s involved in this dynamic mission. No way,” he says.
“But there are a lot of missions where we can.”
Before that happens, he cautions, several issues must be resolved.
A key one is airspace integration, or how unmanned systems would be accommodated into the traditional manned airspace. “National airspace integration will lead to international recognition of UAS,” Mathewson says. Nations must formulate rules and regulations on how to accommodate them in airspace for safe flight. “That’s what it’s all about: safety,” he says.
Other concerns are technology-related: automation, sense-and-avoid systems and lightweight materials.
Once senior service leaders approve the plan, the task force will reach out to industry and academia to help realize the potential for unmanned systems in the future.