In the future, the military can expect to have unmanned aerial vehicles that are faster, stealthier and lighter, with longer endurance and can hold heavier payloads.
“[There will be] more focus on making systems that are stealthier, so they can’t be detected as easily by the enemies, [and] more autonomous so they can operate more on their own. So, if they lose [a] communication link with the headquarters, they can continue to do their mission,” said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at The Teal Group.
Future unmanned aircraft will also be more fuel efficient, Finnegan said.
While there is a desire to make a more advanced generation of UAVs, the Defense Department also faces budgetary concerns. Even if the Pentagon could find the perfect UAV, would it financially be within the department’s reach? Finnegan noted that the Navy has let its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program — an initiative to deploy new unmanned aircraft aboard carriers over the next decade — slip by two years. In February, the Navy also canceled its medium-range unmanned aerial system program.
One problem for the UCLASS system is fitting the aircraft on a ship, said Larry Dickerson, an analyst at Forecast International. The Navy has long faced the issue of limited ship deck space, making difficult decisions and picking and choosing which equipment and weapons to bring along. Besides that, other logistical questions have come up, such as whether to bring on specialized maintenance crews, or train existing crews to fix them.
“You can’t just put it on an aircraft carrier and say ‘go,’” Dickerson said.
As for when the Navy will actually start acquiring the UCLASS, Dickerson said the best-case scenario is in the next 20 to 30 years.
For now, customers are looking to get the most bang for their buck, Dickerson said.
The “Holy Grail” for those buying the systems would be finding one that has the capabilities of a medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAV, but for the price of a tactical system, Dickerson said.
“They are getting more and more expensive,” said Dickerson.
With MALE-UAVs “there is more wiggle room” to add features such as various payloads, but Dickerson noted that they require long runways, which can sometimes make them less ideal to use depending on the situation.
Reducing costs is now more important than ever for customers, Dickerson said. Over the last 10 years, UAVs have seen a huge increase in sales, but at the same time, when they first arrived the military saw them as expendable, Dickerson said. Now, as the aircraft becomes standard inventory, the services want them to be sturdier, stronger, faster and stealthier. But those features come with a high price tag.
One way to improve their capabilities — and control cost — would be the meshing together of large and small UAVs.
“With UAVs, as technology improves and performance improves, you can see a merging between tactical and MALE, moving towards each other,” Dickerson said.
Customers will want more for their money, and in the future will likely expect an aircraft that is configurable depending on the mission.
As for the Defense Department, it will be looking for UAVs that can survive in contested airspace, Dickerson said. There have only been a few isolated incidents of them being struck down by anti-aircraft guns in Afghanistan. However, in a future war operating over a high-threat air-defense environment, drone fleets would likely take losses, Dickerson said. Even if an adversary doesn’t have anti-aircraft guns, the lower in altitude a UAV flies, the more obstacles it can collide with, whether that is other aircraft or general artillery. Future remotely piloted aircraft need to be faster and stealthier if they want to survive below 15,000 feet, Dickerson said. Supersonic UAVs may be one way to resolve the issue, though technologically, industry isn’t there yet.
Industry would also be wise to design drones that can transport more cargo, Dickerson said.
“It’s always a trade-off between range and payload, and especially now that they are arming things,” Dickerson said. A UAV that could go farther, while carrying more, would be a hot-ticket item.
One benefit with unmanned aircraft is that contractors can take advantage of gaps in the market and develop out-of-the-box concepts, Dickerson said.
“We’re not stuck with any certain requirements because the requirements are so fluid,” said Dickerson. This allows for innovation. Currently, developers are using the “spaghetti method” to find the next big thing, Dickerson said. They are throwing a piece of pasta at a wall and seeing what sticks.
The Boeing Co. is looking at a wide range of concepts for the technology.
“There are some niches out there that need to be filled, and probably right now that is high-altitude and endurance,” said Warren Henderson, director of Advanced Boeing Military Aircraft Business Development for Phantom Works.
One of the more promising concepts is the Phantom Eye, a high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) UAV. The lightweight aircraft — its gross weight is 9,800 pounds — uses a hydrogen propellant, can carry a 450-pound payload and fly for four days at 65,000 feet.
The hydrogen propellant is no more expensive than gasoline and is readily available, Henderson said. Environmentally, hydrogen fuel is also ideal because its byproduct is water. The hydrogen fuel concept is one that Boeing is looking to implement across some of its other products.
The Phantom Eye unmanned airborne system completed its first autonomous flight June 1 at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., during which it reached an altitude of 4,080 feet cruising at 62 knots. With proper equipment, the aircraft can communicate with surface ships up to 800 nautical miles away.
Boeing is also working on making a HALE-UAV that can fly for 10 days and carry a payload of 2,000 pounds. At the same time, the company is developing aircraft that will be more autonomous and better suited to fly in contested airspace. While Boeing is pushing for more autonomous capabilities, a company spokeswoman noted that manned vehicles are not going away; it plans to work on concepts to help unmanned and manned aircraft teams, something the Defense Department is demanding.
The 2011 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, put out by the office of the secretary of defense, said unmanned and manned forces must collaborate in order for their performance to be fully maximized.
“Today’s force includes a diverse mix of manned and unmanned systems. To achieve the full potential of unmanned systems, DoD must continue to implement technologies and evolve tactics, techniques and procedures that improve the teaming of unmanned systems with the manned force,” the report said.
Dickerson also stressed a need for greater collaboration between humans and UAVs. A remotely piloted aircraft can’t tell the difference between an insurgent and a civilian, and analysts on the ground are needed to back up the intelligence, Dickerson said.
However, the report also said in the future, the Defense Department will look toward more affordable autonomous unmanned aircraft in order to reduce manpower.
“Today’s iteration of unmanned systems involves a high degree of human interaction. DoD must continue to pursue technologies and policies that introduce a higher degree of autonomy to reduce the manpower burden and reliance on full time high-speed communications links while also reducing decision loop cycle time,” the report said.
For now, all signs point to increased investments in unmanned aerial technology, and Henderson foresees the technology being around for a long time.
“UAVs have proven their utility and their usefulness not only by being able to do the mission cheaper, [but] also by being able to do the mission … [in] areas where it could be risky to human life,” said Henderson.Photo Credit: Boeing