During the first quarter of 2015 there have been several records set, initiatives launched and contracts awarded that signal a continuing growth in the military operation of unmanned aerial systems. The use of UAS by air and naval forces around the globe seems set to increase significantly as technological advances coincide with increasing demand for the capabilities that only unmanned systems seem to be able to provide.
An Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk reached the milestone of 10,000 flying hours on a single airframe — the equivalent of over five years intensive use of a commercial manned aircraft. A single Predator B reached 20,000 flight hours, while the entire Predator fleet worldwide has now clocked up in excess of 1 million flight hours — almost one-third of the total 3.2 million achieved by the entire fleet of UAS manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
The Orion UAS developed by Aurora Flight Sciences broke a decade-old record for the longest endurance flight by a UAS, with a noteworthy 80-hour flight in January. The previous record of 30.5 hours was set by a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk airframe in 2001.
Statistical records like these are strong testimonials for the protagonists of UAS deployment. In military operations — and in the civil aviation world — the potential applications of unmanned or remotely operated aircraft systems are limited only by the imagination of the developer, manufacturer or operator.
Other indicators point to an imminent period of significant growth in the scale of acquisition and use of UAS. In January the Royal Australian Air Force began training operators in the use of the nation's newly acquired MQ-9 Reaper fleet. General Atomics and Spanish company SENER announced the supply of an unspecified number of Predator B UAS to the Spanish Ministry of Defence and Indian firm Reliance Defence and Aerospace announced a teaming arrangement with Sweden's Saab to address a raft of forthcoming UAS requirements in the Indian military.
A growing sector; an increasingly crowded space
Challenges remain to be met and overcome, however. The perennial problem — the routine insertion of UAS into airspace used by manned aircraft — remains unsolved currently, though 2015 and 2016 should see changes on both sides of the Atlantic. Although this is a problem more pertinent to civil aviation than to the operation of military UAS — after all, military air operations usually take place in airspace that has already been largely cleared of civil air traffic — the efforts being made by authorities to resolve the issue are informing the development of systems and technologies that will have an equally beneficial effect of unmanned airframes operated by the military.
The UAS community is avidly observing events on both sides of the civil/military divide. The European Aviation Safety Agency recently issued a landmark document entitled "Concept of Operations for Drones: A risk based approach to the regulating of unmanned aircraft," which military operators are already using as the basis for their existing and projected UAS fleets. Military assets are increasingly asked to provide assistance to civil and nongovernmental authorities in a wide variety of applications, including law enforcement, disaster relief and humanitarian operations support. The military, therefore, needs to be compliant with the applicable regulations, standards and procedures.
The unveiling of new UAS in both Russia and Iran, combined with the way lessons learned from coalition UAS operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are being devoured by both existing and would-be users of the type of platform, is stimulating interest in acquisition and operation of UAS. According to the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research, more than 50 armed forces around the globe are likely to be users by the end of this decade.
This means that many of the technology demonstrators and proof-of-concept vehicles that have characterised European forays into unmanned technologies in the last decade or more need to move on a step further. Series production — even low series production — is going to be the order of the day within the next two to three years, whether or not technologies have been proven in principle or detail.
Perhaps the most talked about armed UAS program in Europe in recent times has been the collaborative development of the nEUROn unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS) led by Dassault Aviation in France. Recently Dassault has announced completion of the flight test program from nEUROn and has indicated that performance in every respect — including low observability or stealth characteristics — has been met or exceeded. With over 100 test flights completed by March this year, the UCAS is about to embark on a series of weapons integration and release test flights, which will take place in both Sweden and Italy.
The results of these tests will undoubtedly inform development of an Anglo-French UCAS project for which an agreement in principle was inked late in 2014. The airframe will fill future combat aircraft requirements for the air forces of both nations and may fill some of the developing requirements for combat operations from the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers under construction for the Royal Navy. Both the BAE Systems Taranis UCAS demonstrator and the nEUROn program will be mined extensively for proven technologies, manufacturing techniques and integration of hardware and software for the new UCAS.
Multiple new technologies take flight
Success in UAS operations for military operators does not depend solely on the airframe itself. Developers of systems and capabilities — ranging from sensors and mission-critical software through propulsion systems and training facilities — are busy currently and are equally as bullish regarding the potential the future market represents. Some of the more interesting developments in recent months have come from a wide range of disciplines and stem from companies high on the list of the "usual suspects" in the defense community, as well as from somewhat less well-known organisations, including:
■UAS Directions is addressing the issue of the limitations presented by conventional airframe design for unmanned operations by developing the Droplet V1 — a 3-D, so-called "frameless" body that reduces the potential for collateral damage from large airframe components in the event of a loss of control and a resulting crash, while also making one-man launch and recovery an easier, more efficient and less dangerous option.
■Rapid Composites LLC continues to develop the Bullray, and promote it as the first truly amphibious UAS.
■Boeing is pouring significant resources into developing sustainable fuel cell technologies for UAS, which will lead to sustainable and longer endurance flights from smaller UAS, which are currently severely limited in endurance by fuel capacity.
■In a similar vein, Alta Devices is now integrating advanced solar power cell technologies onto UAS and believes that solar power represents a viable future for UAS of all sizes.
■Top-Flight Technologies has developed advanced hybrid gas-electric propulsion systems for multirotor UAS and the company's Airborg H6 1500 now boasts a payload of over 20 pounds, a range of over 100 miles and endurance in excess of two hours. Though the Department of Defense has already invested considerable resources in hybrid propulsion, the application of the technology to smaller airframes offers considerable hope for proliferation of tactical UAS in the mid-term.
■Panoptes Systems' eBumper4 is claimed to be "the first commercially available sonar-based obstacle avoidance system for small drones," according to a company release, and is slated for first deliveries by the summer of 2015.
If level of activity — and variety of the same — is anything to go by, there is an imminent Aladdin's cave of capabilities and possibilities just around the corner for military planners, capability managers, commanders and operators.