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They began service with a pejorative name of “drone,” but have become essential assets for gathering intelligence at every level, from national command authority to the small-unit battle space. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), as they’re currently known, have taken on a huge and fast-growing mission burden in several categories of military aviation.

Manned reconnaissance flights are becoming rare because unmanned aircraft systems can fly longer missions without risking human life. UAS deliver weapons on specific targets with tremendous precision.

Unmanned aircraft systems are even delivering supplies, eliminating the threats from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to ground convoys and to aircrews who otherwise would carry materiel to troops on the battlefield.

UAS command and control is also rocketing forward. The Department of Defense defines five levels for Tactical Control Systems (TCSs) ranging from Level 1, receipt of secondary imagery, to Level 5, full control from takeoff to landing. Level 4 controls, operation of satellite UAS from fixed and rotary manned aircraft, are routine today.

In addition, the government has established Autonomous Control Levels (ACLs) for information processing ranging from remotely guided (ACL 1) through onboard route re-planning (ACL 4) up through group strategic goals (ACL 9) and autonomous swarms (ACL 10), with top levels reached by 2025.

UAS have proven so successful in military missions that many experts believe the last generation of manned combat aircraft is now in service. Given advances in flight controls, pilotage systems, weapons and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors, the likelihood is that unmanned aircraft systems will shoulder all or nearly every traditional combat aviation role in the next few decades.

In the near future, “pilots” may well sit at consoles at U.S. airbases while they direct unmanned aerial vehicles throughout entire mission profiles half a world away. In fact, that’s already happening in some cases and may soon be routine on almost every military operation involving aircraft.

A review of the current U.S. unmanned fixed- and rotary-wing fleet demonstrates its diversity, effectiveness and ability to perform a vastly greater array of missions than many of the most advanced manned aircraft are capable of handling today.

For more on the unmanned aircraft systems mentioned in the gallery above, please visit the following websites:

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