It's 100 years since the Wright brothers became the first humans to achieve successful powered flight, but the trend at the beginning of the 21st century is to take humans back out of the cockpit, replacing pilots with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are equipped to perform almost any task.Used on a limited but increasing scale since the Vietnam War for aerial surveillance - 10 UAV systems were used in Iraq according to the US Defense Department - UAVs are now taking on a more active combat role as well as finding applications in the private sector.
May 2004 UAVs aircraft experienced combat for the first time in Afghanistan during 2002 when Hellfire missiles were fired from the RQ-1A Predator. Looking more like a flying spoon than deadly military device, Predator can be used as both a sophisticated surveillance vehicle and an attack weapon capable of remaining airborne for 24 hours. The 8m long aircraft responds almost instantly to remote commands and is equipped with video cameras and a forward looking infra-red (FLIR) that can transmit data in near real time to the front line soldier or the operational commander. The resolution of the images obtained by the Predator at a cruising speed of 155kmh is so good that individual people and clothing colour can be seen - though not to the extent that the individual can be identified - and laser targeting can be used to support other attack craft or for its own Hellfire missiles. Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) are not perfect weapon just yet - in their role as a spy-plane the Predator has the edge over satellites because it can fly under cloud cover and its quiet, relatively cool engines make it a slippery target, but at least 19 Predators have been lost since its introduction, some due to the degree of difficulty in landing the aircraft and 11 during combat. The next generation including the X45a - a joint project between the US military and Boeing - will be specifically equipped to autonomously strike and knock-out enemy air defences. The X45-a (pictured below) is expected to be operational by 2008.Recently seen at the Australian International Airshow, the larger Global Hawk is a high-flying relative of the Predator specifically designed for intelligence gathering. Global Hawk can remain airborne for 36 hours at altitudes above 36,000 feet. This coupled with a range of more than 25,000km makes them powerful information tools and the aircraft are already being fitted with sensors developed for the U-2 spy plane. As many as 60 Global Hawks are expected to be in operation by 2010.A completely autonomous, vertical takeoff and landing UAV - the Hummingbird A-160 - has also been successfully tested and projects like SWARM (Smart Warfighting Array of Reconfigurable Modules) are working on "flocks" of smaller UAVs that share intelligence and react as a single entity. UAV CONCEPTS UNDER DEVELOPMENT:These vehicles can undertake missions that would otherwise be considered to dangerous for manned aircraft, and the loss of a Predator can be measured in millions - insignificant when compared with up to $2 billion for a single B-2 bomber. Next-generation UAVs will be equipped with improved sensors and fly-higher and faster as well as being designed specifically for combat, and an Australian company has already developed a small scale UAV that serves a range of civilian roles as well as equipped for specialised military applications. The AVATAR is an Australian developed autonomous reconnaissance plane capable of transmitting real-time images back to a laptop computer over a 10 km range.According to Warren Williams, Codarra Advanced Systems Managing Director, "AVATAR is a fantastic platform to extend situational awareness. The Army is currently trialling the AVATAR and a major research organisation is partnering with Codarra to extend its capability. The AVATAR's modular design fits in a backpack and it takes approximately 10 minutes to assemble it in the field. Once assembled the vehicle weighs 5kg and measures just over 2.5m wide and 1.3 m long, small enough to be easily hand-launched. The electric propulsion system provides over 60 minutes airtime with the flight path entered via a laptop and using GPS based navigation. The AVATAR carries two closed circuit video cameras with optional configurations including high-resolution digital still cameras and night vision available. The basic platform costs approximately AUS$50,000 according to Codarra Advanced Systems. See article 1899 at http://www.gizmag.com/go/1899/ to learn more about the AVATAR or follow the links below to learn more about UAV developments.