More Sophisticated, Autonomous Unmanned Aircraft on the Horizon

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Drones have become one of the most ubiquitous weapons to come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have given battlefield commanders unprecedented situational awareness and struck key targets all while keeping soldiers out of harm’s way.

In the future, unmanned aerial systems will hold even more utility as they become faster, stealthier and more autonomous, experts said. At the same time, they will become more accessible to foreign countries and terrorist groups around the world.

In a recent Center for a New American Security report titled, “A World of Proliferated Drones: A Technology Primer,” author Kelley Sayler found that foreign nations and non-state actors were quickly developing and adopting the technology.

“We are living, increasingly, in a drone-saturated world,” the report said. “Unmanned aerial vehicles have proliferated rapidly around the globe in both military and civilian spheres.”

More than 90 nations and non-state groups currently operate drones, and many of them can carry weapons, the report said.

“Thirty countries either have or are developing armed drones, including some non-state actors that have either integrated explosives into the drone itself or have claimed … to put releasable bombs or missiles on drones,” said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at CNAS. “Not all of these countries are major military powers — far from it, in fact.”

Derrick Maple, principal analyst for unmanned systems at IHS Aerospace, Defense and Security, an Englewood, Colorado-based aerospace and defense consulting firm, said the global unmanned aerial system market for defense and security purposes is set to double over the next decade.

In 2010, the entire global defense and security UAV market — including platforms and services — was worth $4.7 billion. In 2015, it grew to $5.9 billion. IHS expects it to reach $11.1 billion by 2024.

More nations are growing their indigenous UAV manufacturing base, he said during a robotics conference hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in May.

Many European and Asian countries are beginning to develop native systems, he noted. They are also teaming up to help to reduce costs, adding complexity to the market. India and South Korea are building their own systems as they face rising tensions in the region from countries such as China and North Korea.

Germany, France and Italy are expected to join together to manufacture a European UAV, Maple said. This venture may result in a pan-European new-generation medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV, he said.

Russia and China are also ramping up their own capabilities, he said. Russia plans to invest $10 billion in unmanned systems for its armed forces through 2020. China is increasing its armed UAV capability and preparing to potentially export its aircraft, Maple said.

China’s pace of technological progress has been rapid, said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based defense and aerospace analysis firm. It will likely be the United States’ most advanced adversary in terms of drone technology, he said.

“China is developing a wide range of capabilities from mini systems up to high-altitude, long-endurance systems,” he said. “They’re developing prototypes of these systems, testing them and learning from the tests and then developing new prototypes.”

Scharre said there are reports that China is attempting to manufacture 42,000 drones. By comparison, the United States military has more than 10,000. Most of China’s unmanned aircraft will be lower-level systems, he said.

Unmanned aerial vehicles come in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of lethality, range and payload capability, said Sayler, the author of the CNAS report.

“Not all drones are created equally. When we’re talking about drones we’re really talking about a range of systems that are going to fall on a spectrum of technological sophistication and availability, ranging from hobbyist drones that anyone can purchase all the way up to stealth combat drones that are only going to be available to the most advanced militaries,” she said.

Stealth combat drones have extended endurance, range and payload capability and are extremely hard to detect. Only two such systems — Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 and Northrop Grumman’s RQ-180 — are publicly known, the report said.

“Both systems are reportedly designed to minimize their radar cross-section via low-observable features such as stealth coatings that absorb the radio waves of adversary radar and shaping measures that minimize radar reflection,” the report said. “Neither system has the radar-reflective vertical stabilizers found on most manned aircraft; the systems are instead shaped like tailless flying wings with, according to open-source reporting, specially designed inlets and exhaust features that improve broadband, all-aspect stealth.”

The United States is the only country that operates such drones, but Russia, Israel, China, India, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Greece, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are all working on developing similar systems, the CNAS report found.

Boosting drone capabilities to make less sophisticated systems more advanced will be critical for defense contractors going forward, said a panel of experts during a conference held by CNAS in June.

Ellen Lord, president and chief executive officer of Textron Systems Corp., said she expected to see industry develop systems with increased endurance in the near future, especially in areas with large swaths of land, such as where U.S. Africa Command operates.

“I think endurance is really the key,” she said. “You look at certain areas like the AFRICOM-region and so forth, and you’ve got the tyranny of distance, so I think the endurance challenge is really a significant one and I think you’ll see a lot of people putting a lot of thought into that.”

Additionally, UAVs will continue to get smaller while still packing a punch, said William J. Lynn, chief executive officer of Finmeccanica North America and DRS Technologies. “It will be harder and harder to pick them up as that capability gets miniaturized.”

Larry Dickerson, a senior defense analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based market consulting firm, said there will be demands on small UAVs to complete more missions and carry heavier payloads.

“It’s incorporating more capabilities inside an available package,” he said. “The person who is going to make a lot of money is … [the one who] can take the capability of a medium-altitude, long-endurance system and put it into a tactical system or … take the capability of like a Global Hawk and put it on a Predator. The more capabilities you can put on these systems, the more attractive they are going to be.”

Sayler said that while UAVs are getting smaller, so are munitions. That “is obviously going to make the drones a lot more useful,” especially for systems that have smaller payloads.

There will also be strides in alternative power sources for the systems that will give them increased range, she said. “We’re seeing a lot with solar-powered drones and gliding drones, and we’re seeing a lot of efficiencies in engine performance. I think that’s definitely going to contribute to changes in the technology in the future.”

Survivability in contested airspace is also a key concern for defense contractors, Finnegan said. Drones operating in areas such as Asia will need to be faster and stealthier to avoid detection by operators using advanced air defense systems. They will also need greater autonomy in case a communication link is lost, he noted.

“[If] their GPS is jammed or they are unable to receive signals from base, then they’re able to continue on with their mission and return to base autonomously,” he said.

Advances in autonomy will also reap cost savings by reducing the number of hours needed to train pilots to take off and land drones, Scharre noted.

The Air Force has stated that it intends to rely heavily on automation in future drone operations. In a recent study from the office of the chief scientist of the Air Force titled, “Autonomous Horizons,” the service said automation is a critical technology to develop.

“Unmanned air vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles and unmanned surface and underwater vehicles will form a significant part of future military operations. Currently, most of these systems involve human operators remotely controlling the vehicle with the assistance of fairly low levels of automation for some functions,” it said. “In the future, these remotely controlled vehicles may include more autonomous functionality.”

Advances in autonomy would allow UAVs to be employed in areas where there is a high risk for airmen and unreliable communication links due to jamming. It would also give commanders the opportunity to “undertake new forms of warfare that may be enabled by intelligent but expendable systems” such as swarming, the report said.

Swarming has become an increasingly attractive concept for military leaders in recent years. Instead of deploying one large weapon to destroy a target, many smaller and inexpensive systems can be used to overpower it.

Despite an anticipated increase in autonomous technologies, an airman will almost always need to be in the loop, the report said. “Most or all Air Force operations conducted in the foreseeable future will require a combination of both humans and autonomy to get the job done in the face of a broad range of operational conditions and a determined adversary.”

Teaming will be critical to future missions, the report noted. “Effective teaming between airmen and autonomy will need to be designed into future autonomous systems of the Air Force,” it said.

There are still hurdles which must be overcome before autonomous systems are more widespread, the report said. As hardware complexity grows, there will be more chances for failures. Further, as software is more relied upon, there “will be more opportunities for bugs and vulnerabilities,” the report said. Those issues still need to be solved.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.