Developers predict that pilotless devices will join planes in civilian airspace – and dream of electric robots counting sheep
Lieutenant Uchatius could not have expected it at the time but his novel attack on Venice in August 1849 has become an important date in the history of modern aviation.
The Austrian army officer launched 200 “balloon bombs” controlled by lengths of copper wire and timed fuses, over the city in an attempt to get the Venetians to surrender. He Uchtaius may might not have been the mother of invention but he may well have been the father of a new weapon: the military drone.
More than 160 years later, technology is driving military and civilian uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into remarkable areas.
On the smallest scale, moths living moths have had been implanted with electrodes in their nervous systems to control their movements. On the grandest, UAVs could be flying in civilian airspace by the end of this decade, some aviation experts believe.
This potential is one of the reasons why the UAV sector is the most dynamic of the aviation industry. It is worth an estimated $6bn (£4bn) a year, according to US market analyst, the Teal Group. And that figure is expected to double within 10 years. This potential has been accompanied by fears among scientific critics and human rights groups that downgrading the “man in the loop” means devolving life and death decisions to airborne robots.
Those anxieties are unlikely to be allayed as established arms manufacturers and various start-up firms jostle for position in the competitive field.
A crucial piece of technology is needed to take UAVs to the next level is a robust “sense and avoid” system allowing unmanned planes to fly safely in busy airspace. Arms maker BAE Systems is confident this development is within reach and that UAVs will be able to manoeuvre safely in civilian airspace by 2020.
Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, BAE’s engineering director (systems and strategy), said: “We need to design products that fit in everywhere. We want to open up [civilian] airspace. At the moment you can’t fly UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] in unsegregated airspace and you can’t exploit the commercial market. You have to replace the responsibilities of the pilot.”
Dopping-Hepenstal said Astrea, a collaboration between aerospace firms and the UK government, was looking at all the issues needed to persuade air traffic regulators that civilian drones were safe.
“They have to behave correctly even if they lose communications links to the ground. They must be able to behave as safely as a human pilot.” Even then, he added, there would be little point deploying them on holiday charter flights.
“It’s about long endurance activities like search and rescue. You can put them into places where you couldn’t put a human – for example, an ash cloud.
“In Fukushima, after the Japanese earthquakes, they used a small UAV to assess damage and radiation. There’s no night flying in fighting forest fires: they let them burn during the hours of darkness.” A drone could carry on dousing flames overnight.
The CAA says 120 companies and other organisations have been given approval to fly UAVs in Britain. Five police forces are said to be among them.
At present the UAVs can only be flown within “the line of sight” of the operator, though even with these restrictions companies can see great potential.
Andre Clot, from the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association (UAVSA), said: “This is not an aerospace market any more. It is an information and technology market. We are seeing lots of small, nifty, flexible companies coming up with solutions, and they offer much lower prices than the bigger manufacturers. Eighty-per cent of the UAV market is made up of small companies.”
Drone technology is rapidly spreading around the globe and for the moment the military is still driving innovation. Since losing aircraft to Syrian missile batteries in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel has been a leading developer of UAVs. It sells the vehicles to US and European armies. Working with the US manufacturer Northrop Grumman, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) had a contract to fly them over Iraq.
The UK’s Watchkeeper UAV, a military “target acquisition” spotter is based on an Israeli prototype. A spokesman for IAI said the firm had sold $1bn worth of drones “over the last few years”.
More than 50 countries now manufacture or use drones. China, for example, makes the Yilong drone (which translates as “pterodactyl”).
Beijing has said it will sell the armed surveillance UAV, equivalent to the US Predator, to Pakistan and other countries.
Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Iran, Latvia, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates all have active UAV research or manufacturing programmes.
According to UK strategic export controls, in the last three months of 2011 alone, British firms exported UAVs or components for drones to at least 18 countries.
As well as Nato allies, the equipment went to destinations including Brazil, Croatia, India, Israel, South Korea, Nigeria, Serbia and Singapore.
Sustaining long-endurance flights for persistent surveillance or loitering above targets is a recurrent problem for designers. In the US, Sandia National Laboratories explored the possibility of nuclear-powered drones but suspended work because of public antipathy towards what would amount to a dirty bomb if the device crashed.
One US air force strategist, Adam Lowther, suggested the USAF replace its strategic bombers with drones capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The White House has shown no enthusiasm for adopting the idea.
Some drones are so small they are intended to resemble insects, to avoid detection. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has commissioned a drone the size of a humming bird, equipped with a camera, from the firm AerEnvironment.
A Dutch firm, Green X, builds drones that fly by flapping wings and are disguised as falcons or hawks. They have been flown low around Schiphol airport to scare away geese so the birds do not get sucked into plane engines at take-off or landing. The robot’s radar profile makes it indistinguishable from a real bird of prey. Green X is working on multiple drones to simulate and redirect bird flocks.
Bio-inspired technology has been a source for one of the more improbable strands of drone research. DARPA has implanted gold-plated electrodes into the pupae of tobacco hawkmoths to learn how to control animals remotely, exploiting their flights.
There is also interest in such work in Britain. The MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), which works from Porton Down, Wiltshire, and other locations, this summer produced a HoriZone briefing on current research “to stimulate new lines of thought”.
The review, which notes that “inclusion of any information does not constitute an endorsement by DSTL or the MOD”, carries reference to a US patent on an “animal sensor network”. The US study, it said, aimed to develop a “method for the remote guidance and training of free-roaming animal sensor networks”.
It noted: “Electrodes implanted into the nervous systems of animals are used to provide clues and rewards by stimulating specific regions of the brain to induce desired behaviours such as the direction and speed of movement.
“Each animal carries a backpack containing wireless networking equipment, sensors, and data storage and processing equipment.” Animals, it suggests, could be trained in odour detection.
A call by the MoD agency for research proposals sent out by DSTL last September, asked for projects involving micro UAS (weighting less than 2kg) and nano UAS (60g or less), which would “operate inside buildings and within deep urban canyons” and explore in “confined spaces”. DSTL said it was also interested in “bio-inspired technology” for small UAS systems, aircraft that could detect chemical, biological and radiation hazards, and be used in “crowd monitoring”.
Another use envisaged is for miniature drones that could land and “perch-and-stare on the edge of buildings, on window ledges, [or] on telegraph wires”.
One big weakness of UAVs is their reliance on radio signals. DSTL is eager to improve anti-jamming technology to prevent unmanned aircraft being disabled mid-flight or even hijacked.
Critics of drones, such as the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), warn that as communications can easily be disrupted there will be a drive towards greater automation of the technology, including selection of targets.
Drone makers and developers often focus on civilian uses of the technology to try to stop it being demonised in the media.
The US-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, issued a code of conduct, noting that: “Whether it is aiding search and rescue efforts, navigating through airspace too hazardous for manned vehicles, or furthering scientific research, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and most importantly, saving lives.”
While drones are best known for attacks on al-Qaida supporters – and bystanders – in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, they are already being used for police surveillance, monitoring fires and inspecting wind turbines, crops, high buildings and power lines. Once they can fly in mixed airspace, their roles will proliferate.
The possibilities are seemingly endless. At Farnborough airshow in July, Craig Lippett, of the UAS training programme, said he had been approached by the Welsh Development Agency, which said it was interested in “using drones to count sheep”.