New technologies to improve UAVs

The US is to develop a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles capable of flying for months on end to carry out a range of military and security operations.

The US department of defence ‘roadmap’ for UAV development, unveiled this week, identifies a range of technologies that will broaden UAV capability and performance up to 2025.

The 129-page report, refers to silent flight, self-repair abilities, drones staying aloft for months, hypersonic flight, and super broadband communication. The DoD expects to spend $4bn (£2.5bn) over the next decade on advancing UAV technologies. Today the US military uses 90 UAVs largely in reconnaissance, but by 2010 this number will be almost 300 with varied missions.

The report said that whenever possible ‘UAVs should be the preferred solution over their manned counterparts for those requirements posing the familiar three jobs best left to UAVs: the dull (long dwell), the dirty (sampling areas for hazardous materials), and the dangerous (extreme exposure to hostile action).’

Such future missions would include reconnoitring chemical or biological weapon contaminated areas, operating as an unmanned sentry overseeing a large area, suppressing air defences, search and rescue activities and psychological warfare operations.

Before these missions can be undertaken the report states that advances must occur in three general areas, reliability, survivability, and autonomy. This is because UAVs currently suffer mishaps at 10 to 100 times the rate incurred by their manned counterparts.

Autonomy is important because of battlefield communication limitations. With a limited amount of broadcast spectrum and the need to avoid detection UAVs will need to operate on their own, certainly for covert missions.

But when communication is needed the DoD does not expect radio frequency-based systems to be the answer. For example, for reconnaissance UAVs to relay the full spectrum of data that could be generated by their sensors they will require optical systems or lasers, to transmit back to base. This could be as much as 10Mb/sec.Another major advance for UAVs would be silent flight. This could be achieved by 2004 with the help of today’s prototype solid oxide fuel cells.

Although reliability will require tried and tested systems the report has identified more exotic technologies. Beaming energy to aircraft using microwaves or lasers is one option. Another might be reciprocating chemical muscles. These could power ‘natural wing’ flapping propulsion and would most likely be used for micro UAVs.

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