Today’s unmanned robotic planes only seemadvanced. A decade after the CIA and the Air Force tucked a Hellfire missile under the wing of aPredator drone, much hasn’t actually changed: pilots in air-conditioned boxes remotely control much of the armed drone fleet; the robo-planes are easy for an enemy to spot; the weapons they fire weigh about the same; as much as they love the skies, they take refuge on dry land; and they’re built around traditional airframes like planes and helicopters. Yawn.
All this is starting to change. Drones are moving out to sea — above it and below it. They’re growing increasingly autonomous, no longer reliant on a pilot with a joystick staring at video feeds from theircameras. They’re getting stealthier; the payloads they carry are changing; and they’re going global. They’re pushing humans out of the gondolas of blimps. And the laboratories of the drones of the future aren’t only owned by American defense contractors, they’re in Israel and China and elsewhere, too.
Of course, there are other advancements as well: new model drones fly longer and wield better cameras. But those are routine improvements, like your smartphone rolling out upgrades to its operating system. Here’s a look at the more ambitious ways drones are getting re-imagined.
The U.S. Navy is at the forefront of drone development. Its most ambitious project is to land a robotic plane on an aircraft carrier with minimal human involvement. It’s among aviation’s hardest maneuvers, one that no current drone on Planet Earth can execute. Next year, the Navy will program its X-47B — a batwing-shaped robot — to land on the deck of the U.S.S. George Washington off the coast of Maryland to see if it can be done. All with a click of a mouse.
If the X-47B can pull this off, it’ll be a sea change (pardon the pun). The X-47B is a demonstration model, not the Navy’s carrier-based drone of the future. By 2018, the Navy hopes, a successful X-47B will yield to the UCLASS program, for Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System. The name is actually pretty descriptive: If it works as planned — again, a big if — the Navy will have robotic eyes in the sky way out into blue waters, capable of spying on suspicious maritime behavior and attacking targets they spot. The effort ranks as one of the most significant in the history of drones.
Already, the X47B can refuel in mid-air, giving it a long, long seaborne flight time. Oh, and it looks like an alien spaceship. No big deal.
Photo: Jared Soares/Wired.com
Aero Vironment’s Switchblade
For all the upgrades drones are set to receive, U.S. military officials swear there’s one unyielding constant: A human being, inside a chain of command, will always make the decision to use a drone’s lethal force. The Switchblade doesn’t exactly violate that rule. But it pushes drone warfare closer to the boundary.
Already heading to Afghanistan for commando usage, the tiny Switchblade folds up into a backpack; gets fired through a tube; and a soldier using a laptop sends it on a one-way mission onto a target. Count the innovations there: Most tiny drones are spies instead of killers; and the Switchblade doesn’t fire a missile, itis the missile. But there’s a third, and more profound, change. The drone can be pre-programmed to hit a set of coordinates, making it an “autonomous platform” that manufacturer AeroVironment likes to boast about. True, a human being still sets those coordinates. But the small Switchblade moves drone warfare a step closer to an era when the robots decide who lives and who dies.
Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle
Another example of how the drones of the future won’t necessarily be airplanes or helicopters. The U.S. Army is working on a spy blimp the size of a football field. Pilot not necessarily included.
Much of the hype around Northrop Grumman’s Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, concerns the novelty of a giant blimp capable of hauling a heretofore unimaginable bank of cameras in its gondola. Less attention has gone to the mega-blimp’s intended ability to flip into autonomous mode. Which makes sense, when considering the airship’s other capabilities: If it works correctly, it should be able to stay aloft for weeks at a time. Does it really make sense to keep a human being in the lighter-than-air ship, complete with all the physiological frailties that would necessitate dropping the blimp down onto the ground? The Army is starting to consider those questions: Earlier this month, it brought the blimp over New Jersey for its first test flight; and next year it’s supposed to deploy to Afghanistan.
Image: Northrop Grumman
Raytheon’s Small Tactical Munition
Yes, it’s true: The Small Tactical Munition is not a drone. But it still has important implications for drone warfare.
The weapon of choice for the U.S. drone arsenal is the Hellfire missile. The Hellfires, unleashed on countless terrorism suspects over the last decade, weigh about 100 pounds. That’s a problem: It cuts against the trend of miniaturization that is all the rage in drone circles. Enter the Small Tactical Munition: a bomb weighing just 13 pounds designed to turn the Army’s 12-pound Shadow spy drone into a killer. Raytheon has been developing the Small Tactical Munition for years, but now thinks the bomb could beready to field within months. Not much good for a drone that’s supposed to, say, look like a hummingbird. But it’s probably just the first in mini-weapons for drones.
Israel Aerospace Industries’ Robo-Butterfly
It makes sense that Israel would be on the bleeding edge of drone technology. Not only are its spy apparatus and tech sectors among the world’s elite, Israel has a long, long history with unmanned aircraft. The Israel Defense Forces’ first drone unit formed in 1971, to aid with reconnaissance. Now it’s joining theU.S. military in developing tiny, tiny drones that look like bugs — with one huge difference.
In May, Israel Hayom reported on the Butterfly, a robot weighing a mere 20 grams and designed to look like the eponymous insect, except packed with listening devices and tiny video cameras. Not altogether dissimilar from the U.S. Air Force‘s “micro-aviary” of insect- and bird-like unmanned aircraft. But Israel Aerospace Industries’ mini-drone adds something unexpected: a helmet that gives an operator Butterfly vision. “When you put this on you are actually inside the butterfly’s cockpit,” enthused the company’s mini-robotics chief Dubi Binyamini. “You see what the butterfly sees. You can fly at any altitude and distance and see everything in real time.” In the States, drone operators merely watch their robotic aircraft’s video feed, with no attempt at anything approaching a sensory meld.
If you had to guess what this Chinese drone’s specialty is — and you do, because China’s government has cloaked it in secrecy — it’s probably stealth. The elongated, sharp angles of the Dark Sword are reminiscent of a stretched-out mashup of a Stealth Bomber and a Joint Strike Fighter. Designs for Dark Sword have been floating around for years, and Flight International has dubbed it an “amalgam of concepts” — to include, potentially, being a rare unmanned dogfighter.
China isn’t new to drones. It’s got the the Soaring Dragon, a surveillance drone that looks eerily reminiscent of a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk. But a stealthy drone is a next step up for China’s unmanned capabilities. The Dark Sword may not be the only Chinese stealth drone, either. Late in 2011, pictures of the so-called Wind Blade — a stealthy, blended-wing design drone — started surfacing on the internet.
Photo: Pakistan Defence Forum
Boeing’s Phantom Ray
This Boeing stealth drone has survived a near-death experience. Like its rival the X-47B, it’s a demonstrator craft; and like the X-47B, its batwing shape indicates that it’s designed to evade radar. Unlike the X-47B, however, the U.S. military got cold feet: In 2006, it told Boeing that it wasn’t interested in paying for the project anymore. Rather than junk Phantom Ray, Boeing opted to fund the project itself, and last April, the Phantom Ray took off on its maiden flight in St. Louis. And since the Navy hasn’t picked a design for the UCLASS project that comes after the X-47B, it’s possible that the Phantom Ray will eventually overtake its robotic adversary.
General Atomics’ Sea Avenger
Take one part Predator and one part UCLASS and you’ve got the Sea Avenger. In short, the project is a next-gen Predator that can land on an aircraft carrier. Or so manufacturer General Atomics desires.
The Avenger is the third phase of the iconic armed Predator drone, following the Reaper. In 2010, the Air Force had reached the end of its intended purchases of Preds and moved toward buying Avengers. And for good reason: Avengers are way, way faster, capable of going beyond 400 knots, making it three times as fast as a Pred and 50 percent faster than a Reaper. The sleeker design also turns the drone stealthy.
So General Atomics tweaked its Avenger design to yield the Sea Avenger. (Hold your Sub-Mariner jokes.) The idea is to add the “flexibility” to accommodate “carrier suitable landing gear, tail hook, drag devices, and other provisions for carrier operations.” Translated from the contractor-ese, that means General Atomics is hoping that when X-47B gives way to UCLASS, the Navy will go with the iconic brand in the killer-drone field.
Image: General Atomics
BAE Systems’ Taranis
Stealth drones aren’t only for the Americans and the Chinese. BAE Systems is working on Europe’s first stealth robo-killer, the Taranis. Only the drone hasn’t had a smooth upward ascent.
Named for the Celtic thunder god, BAE first rolled out the Taranis in 2010, complete with a Hollywood-style presentation. Yet trial flights, originally scheduled for last year, have been pushed back repeatedly, and now the hope is to get the Taranis aloft in 2013. There isn’t yet much to show for the £143 million — around $220 million — spent developing the prototype, aside from the occasional mistaken UFO sighting. But if European budgetary austerity doesn’t ground the Taranis before it leaves the tarmac, the Taranis’ ability to evade radar could help wean allied militaries off their dependency on American airpower.
Photo: BAE Systems
Russia isn’t so great with drones. Sure, it’s buying spy robots from Israel, but its own fleet of homebrewed armed drones won’t be ready for another 20 years. That leaves the Russian government with smaller drones — the better to spy on street protests — and not a whole lot besides. Except for the Skat.
Translating to “Manta Ray,” the Skat is a stealthy drone that can carry up to two tons of weapons in its bays, and fly at nearly 500 miles per hour at a low altitude. Mockups and displays of the Skat have been on display for at least five years, but the drone remains in development. It might not take 20 years to field, but it highlights how far the once-mighty Russians have to go to capitalize on the drone revolution.
DRDO Rustom 1
Rising global power India doesn’t intend to get left out of the drone revolution. After buying Israeli models for years, its Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is starting to homebrew its own. Three different models of killer flying ‘bots are in the works: the Rustom 1, the Rustom H and the Rustom 2. (The Rustom 1 had its maiden flight in 2009; the other two are still being developed.) These drones clearly don’t have the capabilities of the American next-gens — they’re slower, not autonomous, and won’t be stealthy. And they wear their influences on their sleeves: The most ambitious model, the Rustom H, seems like a knock-off of the iconic Predator. Still, the arrival of India’s drone sector helps underscore how drone tech has cemented itself as a status symbol for rising powers.