22 November 2011

Drone Technology Ready For Prime Time

Once manned helicopters are rapidly being reconfigured as drones, including:

Boeing’s . . . Little Bird is one of the military’s smallest helos. Images of special operators being dropped off by Little Birds in the middle of narrow city streets have become ubiquitous. Boeing has been working on fielding the unmanned version of the chopper [now in proto-type] that can be used to do almost all the missions a manned little bird can, ISR, light strike even cargo hauling for years now. . . .e’ve seen Lockheed and Kaman team up to deliver an unmanned version of the K-MAX light helo to the Marines for resupply duty in Afghanistan.

It can use autopiloting features to land on the back of a moving truck on its own.

Boeing is developing the chopper for use by the French Navy, where it will be operated from ships in a similar way the U.S. Navy flies soon-to-be-armed MQ-8 Fire Scout drone helos from its ships. . . . The Little Bird is set to conduct sea trials aboard a French frigate in 2012.

Civilians are using radio controlled mini-helicopters with cameras that were once military grade technologies for purposes like filming riots in Poland. Something similar was used by "Libyan rebels to spy on Gadhafi’s forces during the Libyan civil war."

The U.S. is opening, with little fanfare, a new drone base in Southeast Ethiopia intended to be a base for attacks similar to the CIA drone war on the Taliban in Pakistan. Bases like these are possible with minimal on site personnel and few American lives places at risk.

The Navy's X-47 project is coming along well. It is designed to do almost everything that a full service stealth fighter can do (it looks like a small B-2 bomber) and is mostly artificial intelligence run as opposed to being purely a remote control drone. It is designed to land on aircraft carriers: "The plane is slated to conduct sea trials off an aircraft carrier in 2013, using this technology." The X-47 threatens to make the manned F-35C carrier based version of the joint strike fighter obsolete just a few years after it enters service. Since it doesn't need a pilot, the X-47 would be, for example lighter and smaller than a comparable fighter craft, would need less time that would produce wear and tear on the vehicle in practice exercise, could take more risks in combat, could handle aerobatic high G moves that pilots avoid due to the strain on their bodies and their awareness, wouldn't have to worry about pilot exhaustion en route to an engagement, and hence it might actually be a better overall dog fighting plane than an alternative manned carrier based stealth fighter like the F-35C. These might be designed to work in "swarms" as well as alone.

The Navy is replacing one of its models of spy planes (for signals intelligence) that carried a crew of twenty-four with a drone.

Betwixt drones and munitions are missles that engaged in anti-electronic warfare missions traditionally reserved for late model fighter aircraft, like using electromagnetic pulses to destroy electronics on the ground.

Similarly, the Army is procuring small drones normaly used to provide aerial images that is filled with expolsives so it can be used as a missle against targets of opportunity. More mundanely, the Army is using robotic cargo luggers on wheels called mules in Afghanistan on a trial basis.

While not strictly on point, the new P-8 maritime patrol aircraft which is in late stage testing and replaces the old P-3, seems to be capable filling just above every role warships like destroyers and cruisers currently fill in taking on opponents surface warships and to also fill much of the role surface warships in the U.S. Navy now fill in antisubmarine warfare, by deploying sonobouys and launching torpedos when hostile submarines are detected. The plane itself may not be a drone, it is a much faster way do deploy highly automated technology against ships and submarines that can be moved from one theater of battle to the next very quickly and puts far fewer military personnel in the line of fire when it is being used than the ships that it would take to do its job.

Aircraft aren't the only drones. The Marines are looking into robotic rifle targets that look like maninquins on wheels, that provide more realistic training for the battlefield with live fire.

The U.S. doesn't have a drone monopoly. Russia and India, for example, are testing robotic space planes that would work like unmanned space shuttles. Iran is debuting a new cruise missile with a 185 mile range.

Drones are likely to change the military world more than stealth technology ever did, probably in many circumstances in ways that we can't predict.

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