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Technology Removes Need for Human Pilots


Sun November 23, 2003 09:43 AM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Wright Brothers demonstrated that man could fly. A century later, we're looking at a future in which planes fly without humans.

Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, are taking to the skies as military and civilian organizations turn to remote-operated planes or helicopters to perform tasks considered dull, dirty or dangerous.

Already, drones have dropped bombs in the Middle East, snapped images of dangerous terrain from thousands of feet in the air and monitored traffic on congested roads.

Some commentators have even suggested that Lockheed Martin's high-tech F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be the last inhabited fighter plane needed. At the very least, analysts say, drones can be used for potentially dangerous environmental monitoring, such as checking air quality for chemical and biological weapons.

"It's no longer 'yes or no' -- the technology and the systems are accepted," says Daryl Davidson, executive director at the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). "These things are here to stay and they are proliferating."

Proliferating, yes, but not without doubts about their ability to operate safely over urban centers, their cost, and a crash rate that for some far outstrips fighter jets.

In addition, uninhabited vehicles demand extremely high bandwidth -- a measure of how much information can be carried at any given time -- so their use is limited until the technology catches up with the inspiration.

Most fears center on their safety for civilian use, such as monitoring traffic over urban areas.

"They don't have a pilot to get them out of trouble," notes Steve Zaloga, an analyst with Teal Group, an aerospace and defense research firm. "The local TV station isn't going to be happy to have a million-dollar plane crash into traffic or someone's house. It's going to be a hazard and it's going to be a cost issue."

DRONES

The use of drones took off during the Vietnam War, when soldiers strapped cameras onto target planes and flew them remotely through high-threat areas.

But real leaps have come recently amid breakthroughs in technology, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's clarion call for military transformation, and their success in action in the Balkans and elsewhere.

Advances in satellite-guided global positioning systems and wireless communications have helped scientists jump numerous hurdles.

Networking technology and increasing bandwidth, too, have driven invention, since they allow the complex machines to communicate simultaneously with centers that send them directions, as well as other locations to which they beam their images.

These innovations have led to the development of combat UAVs like Boeing's formerly top-secret X45 plane, which can carry at least 1,000 pounds of precision-guided bombs and be either pre-programmed on the ground or have its mission plan changed mid-flight.

If operations go as hoped in 2006, the Department of Defense will start fielding the systems in 2008, Boeing says.

The Marine Corps has also been testing 5-pound, backpack-portable UAVs called Dragon Eye for "over-the-hill" reconnaissance. Missions are programmed via wireless modem and the planes can be launched by hand or bungee cord.

The Marines plan to field at least 311 in coming years. Drones' successes at reconnaissance and bombing in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have also garnered support for the technology.

"Much to the chagrin of fighter pilots in the Pentagon, UAVs are here to stay," says John Kutler, an industry watcher and chief executive of U.S.-based defense investment bank Quarterdeck Investment Partners.

Combat drones were used for the first time in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military deployed a Predator UAV armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles.

But the biggest coup came in November 2002, when the Central Intelligence Agency used a Predator to blow up a car carrying six suspected al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, including one man suspected of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

"Everyone saw their use in operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, so there's growing confidence in the systems," says George Guerra, deputy program manager for the Global Hawk at Northrop Grumman. "What we are able to do is remarkable."

Advances in technology attracted defense contractors and scientists to the UAV workshop.

Visions of huge profits are keeping them there: Rumsfeld's mandate for a fully connected, wired battlefield has directed billions of dollars into remote vehicle development.

The United States is expected to spend about $680 million on military applications alone for drones in 2002, estimates the Teal Group. In a mere two years, that figure is expected to almost double to about $1.1 billion.

Israel, Japan and Australia are getting into the act, too.

Worldwide spending on UAV development is likely to run to about $3.35 billion in 2012. That's up from $1.88 billion this year.

Wall Street is taking note.

"UAVs could be the next very big growth area," says Jun Zhao, a defense analyst for U.S.-based fund manager Federated Investors. "The Department of Defense has to make a decision whether they will fund legacy programs or skip a generation and go directly to transformation."

His bet? Traditional-platform budgets will suffer. "With civil aviation in the doldrums, drones represent an entirely new market," says Zaloga. "It's a great way to grow a business."

Some UAVs, like the Global Hawk, carry synthetic-aperture radar that can penetrate cloud-cover and sandstorms. Other, smaller drones carry electro-optical cameras, similar to TV cameras, that can capture details as small as helmets or hats from thousands of feet in the air. And they can do it for hours longer than any piloted plane.

The General Atomics reconnaissance Gnat 750, for example, can fly for 48 hours and reach altitudes of 26,250 feet.

COMMERCIAL USE

But while UAVs are becoming standard equipment in combat, their commercial use has far to go and they are still rare outside the military because of their high costs and the concerns over their safety.

NASA has tested drones over California grape crops to monitor frost conditions and the U.S. forest service is considering using remote-operated planes to beam images of forest fires back to base camps.

Countries such as Australia are planning to buy drones to monitor their borders for illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Other nations are exploring the possibility of using drones to monitor the seas for both piracy and storms.

Even as the Pentagon and local governments in the United States are fast-tracking the technology, critics are raising some troubling issues.

For one, UAVs are expensive. The General Atomics Predator costs about $3 million for the plane alone, and the costs quickly skyrocket to tens of millions once the ground crew and other operating systems are added.

The Global Hawk system costs between $33 million and $35 million, while the futuristic manned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs about $37 million to $47 million, depending on its operating system. F-16s can be had for about $38 million.

The Global Hawk may cost slightly less than the JSF, but its crash potential is high compared to manned aircraft -- some 50 times higher than that of an F-16 fighter jet, says Victoria Samson at the think tank Center for Defense Information.

Of the 80 Predators in service as of March, 30 had crashed, says Samson. (Some had been crashed intentionally for testing purposes and others had been shot down by enemy fire.)

There are also worries about how well drones can communicate with civilian planes. In August, the Global Hawk finally won permission to fly in civilian airspace. That makes it the first pilot-less airplane to get such clearance, but it was on the condition that it takes off and lands in military areas, and stays thousands of feet above the path of most commercial planes.

Nonetheless, development of military and civil-use UAVs is driving ahead. "The future is promising," says AUVSI's Davidson. "It won't be The Jetsons," he says, referring to the science-fiction cartoon. "But we'll see very utilitarian uses of UAVs. We'll see them on every runway of every airport doing patrols and day-to-day routine tasks.

"They're going to be used in commercial markets for things we haven't even thought of."

(This feature appears in the current issue of REUTERS magazine, Issue 59, November/December 2003. Copyright Reuters Ltd 2003. www.reuters.com/magazine.)


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