Q. What is the future of drone hardware?
During the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Law Vegas, one technology analyst observed that "drones are arguably the most hyped product at CES."2 As this book has suggested, militaries are increasingly relying on drones, as are state governments, hobbyists, relief organizations, and industry. Strong and apparently enduring interest in drones is likely to push big technological advancements; the question is in which direction. Certainly there are the more incremental developments such as selfie-taking drones, but at least in terms of the platforms themselves, the more significant moves are toward smaller, lighter drones and more capacious, stealthy military drones.
One important move for drone technology is toward miniaturization, leveraging smaller and lighter technologies that, when combined with unmanned systems, can mean more effective surveillance and reconnaissance without detection. This has important battlefield utility for soldiers who seek to identify threats over a hill without themselves being in the line of fire, among other examples. The size and stealth advantage, however, also makes mini-drones difficult to regulate or defend, as the technology will be too small to be controlled or picked up by air defenses.
If the Federal Aviation Administration relaxes some of its drone regulations, estimates suggest that 15,000 drones will fly in US airspace by 2020 and 30,000 by 2030.3 Many of these drones will likely be very small (mini- or insect drones), following the move of industry, universities, and the military toward miniaturization. In addition to the individual images that these drones can produce is the potential for working together in swarms that can fly together in some type of formation and create a composite picture of a particular environment.
Most of the current miniature drones fit broadly under the heading of micro- or mini-drones, which are characterized at least by the Pentagon as under 20 lb., though with many much lighter than that. The Raven, a small hand-l aunched unmanned aerial vehicle made by AeroVironment, is neither particularly small nor light, with a 4.6-foot wingspan and a 4.2-lb. weight. The Raven was able to project pictures from 15,000 ft., which led to their popularity and a production run of about 19,000.4 The next step in miniaturization is to go smaller than the Raven. Much as the maritime drones have borrowed from nature by leveraging animals such as fish, shark, and eels, micro-aerial vehicles tend to have "biological inspiration" in the form of flies and insects.5 As the Air Force Research Lab suggests, the objective is to mimic nature in order to "hide in plain sight"6 the implication being that these vehicles would look like insects but actually be conducting surveillance or collecting images. These aircraft tend to have shorter battery life and range, but have the advantage of entering locations that would be inaccessible to other forms of aerial surveillance.
One of the first such micro-drones was the T-Hawk, short for Tarantula Hawk—a type of wasp. The T-Hawk has a vertical takeoff and landing ability and the ability to hover and stare, allowing it to identify and monitor IEDs, do battle damage assessment, and carry out homeland security operations, all while fitting in a backpack. It was used to conduct surveillance after the Fukushima nuclear power accident in Japan in 2011. The T-Hawk carried out operations that would have been dangerous for humans because of radiation exposure. Since the T-Hawk is not susceptible to radioactive exposure, it could take imagery of the reactor to assess the origins from which radioactivity was emanating.7
The TechJect Dragonfly, another micro-drone, this is the product of researchers at Georgia Tech, who were aided by a $1 million grant from the US Air Force. The Dragonfly is roughly 6 in. long and weighs about .88 oz. It is able to hover for 8-10 minutes or perform a combination of hovering and fixed-wing flying for 25-30 minutes. The Dragonfly carries up to 20 sensors, which allow it to take pictures and perform reconnaissance. Depending on the model, the Dragonfly would retail anywhere from $250 to $1,500.8
Another example is AeroVironment's Hummingbird drone, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA), which was developed to maneuver much like a hummingbird after which it is named. It has a 6.5-in. wingspan and weighs about 0.67 ounces (19 g), making it only slightly larger than the average hummingbird. The drone is also able to perch on objects, such as a window ledge, and gather intelligence about its target via its built-in audio and video recorders. Hummingbird drones could also be used to locate survivors in rubble and investigate locations where there are potentially hazardous chemicals.9
The Black Hornet Nano was developed by a Norwegian company, Prox Dynamics, and is currently being used by the British Army. The Black Hornet is 4 in. long and weighs .67 oz. It is well suited to reconnaissance, as it flies nearly silently and is colored to blend in with the grey mud buildings that are common in many Afghan villages. The drone captures video and still images, which it can send to a handheld terminal up to 3,280 ft. (1,000 m) away. The Black Hornet is able to be directly controlled by a pilot or to operate autonomously using global positioning system (GPS).10
What makes these technologies fascinating is not only their small size but also their resemblance to actual insects. Figure 6.1 shows a RoboBee, designed in the Harvard University Robotics Laboratory, whose wings gyrate similar to those of an insect and which is smaller than a penny.11 In 2012, a graduate student demonstrated that the RoboBee could ascend into the air, hover, and carry out controlled flight maneuvers. In his review of micro-drone technology, Adam Piore writes that "until recently, inventors lacked the aerodynamics expertise to turn diagrams into mechanical versions of something as quotidian as a fly or a bee."12
With these nano-drones though, questions about privacy become even more salient. These drones, because they resemble insects so closely, can truly hide in plain sight. What could seem like a fly might actually have sensors and small cameras. Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, expressed concern about the privacy issues of small drones that fly into
Figure 6.1 Harvard Microbotics Lab
a neighbor's backyard, but also those that could be used as terrorist weapons, sneaking into high casualty areas and doing maximum damage.13 His recommendation included an international treaty that would regulate inexpensive nano-drones. "It's got to be regulated. You just can't imagine that British people would allow this sort of thing, and I can't imagine American people would allow this sort of thing. It's one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they're doing, but have other people doing it____It's not going to happen."14 The nano-drone might not be equipped to carry out the damage, at least in terms of security and terrorism, that Schmidt outlines, but he is not the first to raise these privacy concerns. Another observer put it, with the introduction of the Zano, a personal nano-drone, "the personal paparazzi nano drone has arrived."15
While miniaturization is one significant advance for the future of drones, another end of the developmental continuum is toward faster, stealthier, more capacious military drones. The most sophisticated armed drone has been the Reaper, which remains quite vulnerable even to a rudimentary set of air defense systems. The next wave of advancements is likely to come in the form of faster, stealthier, less vulnerable drones. In some of its most ambitious plans, the Pentagon envisions a long-range strike bomber that can flip a switch and transform from a manned aircraft to one that is unmanned and flown remotely. As an optimistic interpretation, this vision would be the best of both worlds, bringing the advantages of unmanned and manned aircraft: the combination of little risk to pilots and long-enduring missions that loiter, which comes with unmanned aircraft, with the flexibility and ability to make quick decisions about rapidly changing security environments, attributes of manned platforms. The former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cartwright, argued that while there are psychological hang-ups about using unmanned bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles are also unmanned, though the ambitious vision would allow nuclear weapons to be delivered in the manned mode of the next-generation bomber.16 A less sanguine interpretation would point to previous military efforts to produce multirole platforms, including the F-35, and the tendency for enormous cost overruns in the effort to be all things to all people (or services).
Even farther on the horizon is the idea of a combat drone that can engage in dogfights, which are the type of air-to-air combat missions that were common in World War II when, for example, the German Luftwaffe would shoot down Russian aircraft, and that popularized by the movie Top Gun. While this type of combat is becoming less and less frequent, with stand-off weapons reducing the need for these maneuvers, the experimental X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle program has toyed with the idea of a future dogfight capability. Until now, this capability has been elusive. On December 23, 2002, during the American effort to depose Saddam Hussein, an Predator drone of the United States Air Force fired a Stinger missile at an Iraqi MiG-25. These air-to-air missiles had been attached to the drone's airframe in what can only be called a haphazard effort to defend the aircraft against aerial threats.
Indeed, the Stinger missile did not hit the Iraqi aircraft, which subsequently shot the drone out of the sky. While this lopsided engagement could hardly be called a success story of unmanned flight, it was nonetheless significant in that it was the first time a drone had done battle with a manned counterpart.
The possibility of unmanned dogfighters presents numerous advantages. The most obvious advantage to such a system is that aircraft loss would not incur any human cost. Furthermore, a drone is not hindered by the limitations posed by having a human on board: not only would such an aircraft not require support systems such as an oxygen supply and a cockpit, but it would also be unhindered by the G-force limitations of the human body. Such a drone would thus be able to execute high-G maneuvers, a crucial component of dogfights, without knocking out or killing its pilot. Furthermore, if militaries are leery of phasing out the fighter pilot for drones, these dogfighting-capable drones craft could perform admirably as a complement to manned air superiority fighters, either as robotic wingmen or simply as cannon fodder. The efficacy of the drone in the latter role was dramatically demonstrated during the Yom Kippur War, when Israel used unarmed drones to force Egypt to expend its arsenal of anti-air missiles. The Israeli Air Force subsequently exploited Egypt's vulnerability. It was postulated that such a tactic could be employed by the Soviet Union against American aircraft carriers patrolling the Pacific.
In spite of the potential benefits associated with air superiority drones, little tangible progress has been made toward fielding one. America's current fleet of drones is dominated by "hunter-killer" drones such as the Predator and Reaper, both of which serve in surveillance and air-to-ground roles. Neither the Predator nor Reaper is sufficiently aerodynamic to meet the rigorous demands of air combat.
As previously mentioned, the closest any military has come to actually developing an unmanned dogfighter involves plans for the American Navy's UCLASS aircraft. As a carrier-capable drone, the UCLASS could be equipped with missiles able to conduct air-to-air strikes. Another possibility is the conversion of a pre-existing manned aircraft into a drone. The United States Air Force has already converted the Korean War-era F- 86 Sabre and the Vietnam-era F-4 into target drones for training purposes. More interestingly, a 4th-generation F-16 Falcon was converted into an unmanned platform. During testing, the drone, dubbed the QF-16, successfully completed 9-G maneuvers typical of those required during dogfights. The possibility of converting manned air systems to drones in an effort to reduce the human toll of air wars could serve a valuable function.
Given the potential unmanned aerial systems have for air combat, and given the degree to which the United States military has incorporated UAV's in recent military operations, it may seem incongruous for such little progress to have been made in the development of unmanned fighters. One of the principal setbacks to such an enterprise has been cost: the United States has dedicated a substantial amount of resources to the development of its 5th-generation manned fighters such as the F-35 or F-22. Furthermore, the fact remains that the United States Air Force has been dominated by manned aircraft since the end of World War II. The fighter pilot is a revered figure in military circles, and is unlikely to be phased out without extreme reluctance. While unmanned dogfights are unlikely in the near future, as drones become a more integral part of the military, a serious conversation about the future of the manned dogfighter will likely be taking place.