Paris Air Show

Issues abound in expansion of UAV missions

 - June 19, 2007, 10:25 PM

The number of unmanned air vehicles in our skies is growing fast, but there are many regulatory and doctrinal issues to resolve, before UAVs and their ground and underwater-based cousins will operate routinely. 

Indeed, even the terminology is evolving. The Shephard Grouprenamed its UAV conference, held here in Paris last week, “Unmanned Systems” to reflect the multi-dimensional thrust of current developments. But the vice chief of the French air force had another suggestion. “I prefer the term ‘remote-controlled,’ since humans must remain in control of these vehicles,” said Gen. Jean Paul Palomeros. He also asked rhetorically, would nations be more likely to go to war, if they could fight without risking human lives?

Palomeros noted that unmanned aerial vehicles do not necessarily reduce the manpower expense. “These operations need highly talented and motivated people, and because they can potentially fly around-the-clock, there is a huge flow of reconnaissance data to be exploited, he said.

Col. Nigel Jefferson of HQ Royal Artillery, British Army, suggested a “services model” for the future operation of unmanned systems, saying: “BP (British Petroleum) may see the value of UAVs, for inspecting pipelines, but they may not want to be an operator themselves.” In the military sphere, Jefferson looked forward to UAVs being launched from fighters and being refueled in midair. He also noted last year’s use in the Lebanon conflict, by Hezbollah, of small UAVs supplied by Iran. “We will have to develop a counter-UAV capability,” he said.

Dyke Weatherington, from the office of the Secretary of Defense, said the U.S. is planning to spend $2.7 billion on development, procurement and operation of UAVs in this fiscal year. In FY 2009, that total will jump to $4 billion and remain at or slightly below that level for the subsequent four years. The U.S. military currently operates 528 medium-to-large UAVs, and nearly 3,500 small UAVs (such as hand-launched systems). Last fiscal year, the U.S. flew 160,000 hours with these UAVs.

But the question of how UAVs–both military and commercial–can operate in nonsegregated airspace, remains moot. “We need to fly routinely, but it’s a matter of when,” said Jefferson. The latest “sense-and-avoid” technology research in the U.S. is promising, and offers a solution, he added.