Robotic Sky Warriors

Hiding in a building in the Sadr City district of…

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Hiding in a building in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, criminals launched a rocket attack on Iraqi civilians at 1300 hours on May 8th, 2008. Two civilians were killed and eight others injured. A multi-national air weapons team using a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) on a surveillance mission observed the insurgents moving rocket rails from the site of the attack to an alley nearby. The UAV maintained watch and provided the images necessary to positively identify these terrorists, and observed them moving to the roof of another building. The UAV’s surveillance role was about to change.

030813-f-8888w-506.gifWith ID confirmed, the air weapons team switched the nature of the UAV’s mission to that of a counter-insurgent fighter. As in a video game, the remote pilot maneuvered around the building while the sensor operator took control of his joystick and fired three Hellfire missiles into the building. One missile struck the first floor, another hit the second floor and a third took out a structure on the roof. Ground personnel confirmed that all enemy targets were either killed or wounded. Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the 4th Infantry Division, U.S. Army reported, “These criminals are responsible for the murder of innocent Iraqi civilians, who died as a result of their heinous, indiscriminate attack.”

UAV Transformation
On patrol, many troops can remember the first time they heard the buzz of an approaching Predator. Even though UAVs have existed for more than 30 years, the U.S. government never seriously invested in the programs. For those of us on the ground, most had never seen one before we heard it. Since the beginning of the War on Terror, the UAV has proved more valuable than just a reconnaissance tool and the government is funding the fastest development program in recent history. Now the UAV is becoming highly regarded as a proactive weapon.

The same Predator that fed real-time images of the enemy on the ground is now outfitted with Hellfire missiles, bombs, and laser-guided rockets. These drones can be operated remotely, often costing less than piloted aircraft, and the loss of a UAV has less of an impact on public perception than losing a life.

To expand the role of the UAV, companies are already developing their products with features that mimic its piloted counterpart. In August 2006, a joint DARPA-NASA program successfully performed the first in-flight refueling of a drone, thereby extending the range of UAVs and exceeding the endurance of a piloted airplane.

Generations Y and Z
Many of those born between 1980 and 2000 are part of or are entering military service. These troops fall into the label “Generation Y.” Although those born after 1991 are not old enough to join the military, companies are already developing UAVs for this generation and the next.

For the time being, UAVs are operated by both mobile and fixed ground control stations. Raytheon has developed a UCS (Universal Control System) featuring controls and wrap-around imagery that mimic those from popular video game consoles. UAV operators at Ali Al Salem AFB in Iraq already use game-like joysticks to control the Predator. Those video game-obsessed kids that we all know may soon have a special job waiting in the military after graduating high school.

More than 120 models of UAVs are being developed and are seeing use against our enemies, enough to overwhelm anyone trying to sort them out. Here are the major players:

Predator, Reaper and Sky Warrior
The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army have been the primary users of the Predator, a fixed-wing UAV that has been regarded as the standard by which other UAVs are judged. Members of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Expeditionary Wing paint images of bombs on the side of their Predators after they return from a mission, much like marks tallied on the fuselage of World War II aircraft when they shot down an enemy plane. Certainly appropriate, these images on the Predators represent the number of Hellfire missiles launched while engaged in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan where they conduct armed reconnaissance against crucial targets and carry out interdiction missions.

The Reaper is termed the “hunter-killer UAV.” It flies in Afghanistan soaring high above the mountains, searching for dug-in terrorists. Taliban fighters use the terrain to their advantage, carrying out attacks on American forces from elevated positions. The Reaper has a growing track record in disrupting these attacks. The Reaper is larger and more heavily armed than the Predator and can carry out attacks on time-sensitive targets with amazing precision.

The Reaper’s effectiveness caught the attention of the British RAF (Royal Air Force) causing them to purchase many last fall for deployment to Afghanistan. “The introduction into service of Reaper is a major milestone for the RAF,” says Chief of the Air Staff Sir Glenn Torpy. “[The Reaper] will significantly enhance the UK’s surveillance and reconnaissance capability in Afghanistan.” The British government expects that their new UAV will give troops a better picture of enemy activity on the ground.

As evolving UAV technology has quickly produced faster, quieter, higher-flying, easier-to-deploy UAVs, General Atomics has improved their Predator, and the tactical systems it carries, with the latest variant called the Sky Warrior. The new Sky Warrior is a derivative of the Predator, which has been part of the reason for a new unmanned air wing division in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. The Sky Warrior features a new heavy fuel engine to use more readily available fuel sources, and fewer parts to reduce maintenance costs and increase service life. It can fly above 25,000 feet on JP-8 or diesel fuel.

It features an ex­tended range and serves a greater number of roles than did the original Predator UAV.

Grumman’s Global Hawk
The Global Hawk UAV relayed images immediately following the tsunami disaster in Asia. It’s unique due to its programming. Once parameters are entered, this UAV can autonomously taxi, take off, fly for extended periods and land on its own. The operators who manage the Global Hawk’s operation can divert or change missions in flight. The Global Hawk is the only UAV that has met the FAA’s airworthiness standards and is approved to fly regularly within U.S. airspace.

After logging thousands of hours without failure, the U.S. Air Force deployed two production Global Hawks in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Even though it is constructed of lightweight, high-strength composite materials, it can carry up to 3,000 pounds of payload for 36 hours at more than 60,000 feet.

AeroVironment Raven
Many UAVs before the GWOT were im­­­practical and too large to be considered “man portable.” The government asked AV (AeroVironment) to effectively shrink their “Pointer” model, paving the way for the current Raven model carried by individual troops.  The Raven’s rapid deployment makes sense on a dynamic battlefield or in other tactical situations. Soldiers often deploy the Raven to see over hills, walls or on top of buildings without compromising position. This UAV can even deploy from a small boat using the Raven to gain intel of a larger suspect vessel before approaching it. Today, scouts of the 3rd Infantry Division make their job safer by deploying a Raven in urban areas before entering a compromising situation.

The Raven weighs just over 4 pounds and is launched by hand. Effective for its size, it has an endurance rating of 80 minutes and can carry the same payload, navigation and control systems as the Pointer. It can operate out to 6 miles from the operator at a ground altitude ranging from 100 and 1,000 feet. It can fly by remote control or by an autonomous program using determined GPS waypoints as navigation. A single command button can order the Raven to return.

Fire Scout Helo
Not all UAV’s are launched from rails, thrown by hand, or take off on runways. What might be mistaken for a helicopter is actually a UAV that operates like one. The Fire Scout is an unmanned helo developed for use by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps for reconnaissance and precision targeting support.

Capable of deploying from a naval vessel autonomously, the Fire Scout is a VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft that can sustain an altitude of 20,000 feet for three hours. It has a four-blade rotor that reduces noise, while improving lift and performance. In 2006, the Fire Scout became the first unmanned helicopter to land on a ship when it settled on the U.S. Navy’s amphibious transport, the USS Nashville.

On the battlefield, the wings carry Hellfire missiles and Viper Strike laser-guided weapons including the APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System), a laser-guided folding-fin rocket that the U.S. Army considers ideal for the modern battleground.

The UAV Advantage
The conventional battlefield is continuing to change. As the cost of human life becomes increasingly difficult for Americans to stomach to win the war on terror, many companies will race to develop alternatives that may change the way America fights battles in the future.

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