Making combat G.I. Joe-less

Jan. 9, 2003
Unmanned combat vehicles will carry out the dull, dirty, and dangerous missions.

Aerosonde: Aerosonde
Robotic Aircraft
D-21 (ret.): Lockheed
Martin Aircraft Co.
General Atomics
Global Hawk:
Northrup Grumman Ryan
Black Widow:
AeroVironment Inc.
Petit Duc:
Dassault Aviation
Surgical strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the Middle East neatly illustrate the advantage of fielding equipment smart enough to act on its own or be remotely guided. Pilotless aircraft, for example, can carry out missions without risking aircrew or expensive equipment. This is largely due to the advances in telemetry, artificial intelligence, infrared and motion sensors, optics, and electromechanical actuation. And UAVs cost much less than manned fighters and bombers. (It's estimated that the support subsystems for a pilot can add 1,200 lb to the aircraft's total weight.)

The Predator, a UAV from General Atomics that recently bombed a vehicle carrying Al Queda terrorists, had not been originally designed to carry weapons. It was conceived as a reconnaissance plane and later armed with missiles. But the next generation of military UAVs, already dubbed UCAVs (unmanned combat air vehicles), will come fully armed right out of the box.

The U.S., under the auspices of Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and working with Boeing, is developing some of the technologies that will make UCAVs even more deadly. The X-45 UCAV is the testbed for the $131 million Darpa-Boeing program. It is 27 ft long, tailless, with a 34-ft wingspan. A Honeywell turbofan powers the 8,000-lb vehicle and gives it a 3,000-lb payload. It is outfitted with secure satellite-relay and line-of-sight communication links. The military can store it unassembled in small containers for up to 10 years, then reassemble it in about an hour. Up to six fit inside a C-17 transport plane. Estimated cost is $10 million. Some of the technologies that will get a boost from this program include information collection, assessment, and presentation; autonomous target identification; miniature munitions; fluidless power, actuation, and cooling; stealthy antennas; higher-thrust, limited-life, storable engines; and low-cost airframes and manufacturing.

Over four dozen prime contractors now field unmanned air vehicles, and many are working on combat versions. This trend is also international. In France, for example, Dassault Aviation is working on the Petit Duc (Small Duke), an all-composite UAV with a blended wing design, twin vertical stabilizers, and an internal weapons bay. It is being used to validate technology for a follow-on, the Grand Duc.

There are some doubters, however. They see UAVs as unattractive business propositions. They point out that planes are typically bought in small numbers, carry low price tags, and compete with more lucrative manned programs for the same missions. And on the civilian side, FAA regulations severely restrict UAV operations, fostering the perception they are less responsible users of airspace.

Nevertheless, the role of UAVs is growing. One reason is the advent of high-bandwidth satellite transponders that can pass real-time video over wide-area networks. Smaller, more powerful computers now let UAVs handle routine problems on their own, making autonomous flight more reliable.

Researchers are also working on unmanned ground combat vehicles. Darpa and Carnegie Mellon University, for example, are collaborating on Spinner, a six-wheeled robotic recon ranger. Its novel suspension keeps it mobile even when the vehicle is upside down. Carnegie Mellon is also working with UQM Technologies on an electric propulsion system for Gladiator, a tactical unmanned ground vehicle (TUGV). Earmarked for the Marine Corps, Gladiator will carry out surveillance; locate targets; detect nuclear, biological, and chemical hazards; breach obstacles; and direct fire.

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