ARE UAV’s, RPAS OR DRONES REALLY THE NEXT TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION WAITING TO HAPPEN?
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
16 Oct 14. The answer is yes they are but there is still quite some way to go yet before we see pocket size ‘drones’ flying around our towns, cities and countryside making money for those prepared to believe that this really is the next real technology revolution.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) or to give them the more common technically incorrect name used by press and media – drones – it is fair to say that UAV and RPAS have been operating very successfully in the military of quite a few countries around the globe for a long time. To the point that they can be described as mature technology today is because through their application and use in theatre they have proven themselves to be a very necessary ‘eye in the sky’ additional must have capability that allows those engaging in operational missions on the ground or in the air to have the reconnaissance and intelligence they require to carry out a specific mission.
A point that is sadly so often lost is that UAV’s are, just as all military and civil aircraft flying today are, also piloted albeit from a command and control position that could be located a very far way away. It is an important point that should never be lost – whether piloted locally or maybe from a place and country many thousands of miles away, UAV’s and RPAS have exceptionally well trained pilots as well.
Use of UAV’s in the commercial world has not surprisingly been slow to almost none existent so far due to the need to agree the obvious restrictions that would have to be placed on their use and of how the whole process of UAV’s would be regulated for the purposes of use of airspace and public safety. While there is much research and long term investment going on currently with a view to recognising the importance that the civil aspects of UAV use will eventually have their free and unencumbered use for civilian applications remains restricted to just a small handful of nations in which safety concerns are less of an issue. But best to be in no doubt that once the rules of engagement have eventually been set growth and the barriers to UAV use removed by the authorities on the basis of the establishment and embodiment of a proper regulatory regime, future use of UAV’s for and by public, commercial and civilian entities is to me all but assured.
For now the primary use of UAV’s is thus still restricted to the military and I suspect that position is unlikely to change over the next five or six years. Piloted by a specialist team on board ship the Royal Navy for instance now uses the small unarmed ScanEagle UAV for reconnaissance and intelligence purposes. With a wingspan of 10ft, weighing 48lbs and flying at about 60 knots the ScanEagle mission, using state of the art sensors including video and infra-red camera, is to beam back ‘real time’ high resolution images via a satellite link.
In addition to those operated from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada by 39 Squadron the Royal Air Force has through 13 Squadron been operating the Predator MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted air system platform from RAF Waddington on Operation Herrick missions in Afghanistan. Reaper, a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) remotely piloted air system has, over the two years it has been in operation with the Royal Air Force, been used very successfully for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) support missions with no loss of capability in theatre. Reaper has also been used to provide close air support on opportunity targets for troops operating in the forward part of a battle-space area. Having evolved from a pure ISTAR and ISA (Intelligence and Situational Awareness) role we may expect that in the years ahead UAV’s will evolve further to include all aspects of find, fix, track, target, engage and