Unmanned planes safer, smarter


Versatile: Remote-controlled drones have proved so effective that the military is working on combat models and versions as small as insects.

October 10, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The first American pilots to fly missions over Afghanistan this year never left the ground.

They sat inside control stations, perhaps in Uzbekistan or even Turkey, and flew unmanned drones by remote control. They took pictures with video cameras, infrared imaging devices and radar. One of their craft crashed, but no one was hurt.

Defense analysts say Afghanistan's rugged and remote terrain is the perfect showcase for one of the United States' most promising young technologies - the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.

Smaller and quieter than jets, more mobile than satellites, unmanned drones are being used with increasing frequency by military intelligence teams to peer into hostile, unknown territory without risking pilots' lives.

UAVs were used during the Persian Gulf war to identify targets, but modern versions can fly much longer and farther and gather exponentially better intelligence. Besides simple photography, they can now use radar to track individual vehicles or even people - day or night, cloudy or not.

The aircraft have their weaknesses. They are notoriously fickle in bad weather and sometimes crash mysteriously.

But the Air Force and Navy are so enamored with UAVs that they are experimenting with missile-firing drones and considering giving them combat roles. Virginia Republican Sen. John W. Warner, a former Navy secretary and Armed Services Committee chairman, wants one-third of the Pentagon's deep-strike aircraft to be unmanned by 2010.

"What you're seeing is a merger between the maturity of the technology and the acceptance of it within the military," says Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.

"These systems will be used more and more in places like Afghanistan. People realize that they can get the intelligence and the information they need in a risk-free environment."

The Pentagon won't comment on operations or even confirm that UAVs are flying over Afghanistan.

But the government's hand was tipped two weeks ago when Taliban leaders claimed to have shot down a spy plane. The Pentagon acknowledged that a UAV was lost, though it denied that the Afghans had managed to shoot it down.

The most obvious advantage of using a drone to gather intelligence is safety. No one has ever died crashing an unmanned aerial vehicle.

But pilotless aircraft can also perform feats of endurance and aerobatics that would be all but impossible with a living, breathing 200-pound payload on board.

One surveillance drone used extensively by the Central Intelligence Agency - a vehicle called a Gnat - can fly for two days without refueling. Pilots in single-seat airplanes, by comparison, are rarely asked to fly for more than a few hours at a stretch.

Unmanned craft also can operate at altitudes unreachable by most manned aircraft, even pressurized ones. A scientific research vehicle called Theseus, used in the mid-1990s by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, could collect data at nearly 90,000 feet.

Unencumbered by creature comforts, pilotless planes are typically lighter and smaller - and consequently cheaper - than anything else in the sky. Even the expensive ones cost only a few million dollars apiece.

"You can do amazing things with an aircraft once you no longer have to concern yourself with keeping someone inside of it alive," says Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute who teaches a course in emerging defense technologies at Georgetown University.

So far in Afghanistan, the United States is probably using only "endurance" UAVs like the Gnat and another called the Predator, Thompson says. Those aircraft typically use the same runways that piloted craft use, fly above 25,000 feet, and can be fitted with a variety of cameras and other intelligence-gathering devices.

They transmit data, including video, to satellites or the ground, almost in real time.

Flying from an airbase in Turkey, endurance UAVs were used over Bosnia to search for mass graves. A Predator crashed in Iraq in August.

The newest endurance UAV, a plane called Global Hawk, is fitted with a sophisticated radar that can identify and follow ground targets. The Global Hawk is being developed by Northrop Grumman Corp., but advance versions have been tested and could be deployed if needed.

If ground troops go to Afghanistan, they will probably arrive equipped with a variety of smaller unmanned aircraft used for short-range missions - "tactical" UAVs. While the endurance UAV circles overhead like satellites, the tactical spy craft are typically launched over a mountain range or around a building to give ground forces a quick peek at the other side.

Tactical UAVs might use launching platforms mounted on trucks or ships, and some can be recovered with nets. The smallest, including some under development by the Marine Corps, are launched by hand.

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