3 September 2009
Attack of the drones
Military technology: Smaller and smarter unmanned aircraft are transforming spying and redefining the idea of air power
FIVE years ago, in the mountainous Afghan province of Baghlan, NATO officials mounted a show of force for the local governor, Faqir Mamozai, to emphasise their commitment to the region. As the governor and his officials looked on, Jan van Hoof, a Dutch commander, called in a group of F-16 fighter jets, which swooped over the city of Baghlan, their thunderous afterburners engaged. This display of air power was, says Mr van Hoof, an effective way to garner the respect of the local people. But fighter jets are a limited and expensive resource. And in conflicts like that in Afghanistan, they are no longer the most widespread form of air power. The nature of air power, and the notion of air superiority, have been transformed in the past few years by the rise of remote-controlled drone aircraft, known in military jargon as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs).
Drones are much less expensive to operate than manned warplanes. The cost per flight-hour of Israel’s drone fleet, for example, is less than 5% the cost of its fighter jets, says Antan Israeli, the commander of an Israeli drone squadron. In the past two years the Israeli Defence Forces’ fleet of UAVs has tripled in size. Mr Israeli says that “almost all” IDF ground operations now have drone support.
Of course, small and comparatively slow UAVs are no match for fighter jets when it comes to inspiring awe with roaring flyovers—or shooting down enemy warplanes. Some drones, such as America’s Predator and Reaper, carry missiles or bombs, though most do not. (Countries with “hunter-killer” drones include America, Britain and Israel.) But drones have other strengths that can be just as valuable. In particular, they are unparalleled spies. Operating discreetly, they can intercept radio and mobile-phone communications, and gather intelligence using video, radar, thermal-imaging and other sensors. The data they gather can then be sent instantly via wireless and satellite links to an operations room halfway around the world—or to the hand-held devices of soldiers below. In military jargon, troops without UAV support are “disadvantaged”.
The technology has been adopted at extraordinary speed. In 2003, the year the American-led coalition defeated Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, America’s military logged a total of roughly 35,000 UAV flight-hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year the tally reached 800,000 hours. And even that figure is an underestimate, because it does not include the flights of small drones, which have proliferated rapidly in recent years. (America alone is thought to have over 5,000 of them.) These robots, typically launched by foot soldiers with a catapult, slingshot or hand toss, far outnumber their larger kin, which are the size of piloted aeroplanes.
Global sales of UAVs this year are expected to increase by more than 10% over last year to exceed $4.7 billion, according to Visiongain, a market-research firm based in London. It estimates that America will spend about 60% of the total. For its part, America’s Department of Defence says it will spend more than $22 billion to develop, buy and operate drones between 2007 and 2013. Following the United States, Israel ranks second in the development and possession of drones, according to those in the industry. The European leaders, trailing Israel, are roughly matched: Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Russia and Spain are not far behind, and nor, say some experts, is China. (But the head of an American navy research-laboratory in Europe says this is an underestimate cultivated by secretive Beijing, and that China’s drone fleet is actually much larger.)
In total, more than three dozen countries operate UAVs, including Belarus, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Georgia. Some analysts say Georgian armed forces, equipped with Israeli drones, outperformed Russia in aerial intelligence during their brief war in August 2008. (Russia also buys Israeli drones.)
Iran builds drones, one of which was shot down over Iraq by American forces in February. The model in question can reportedly collect ground intelligence from an altitude of 4,000 metres as far as 140km from its base. This year Iranian officials said they had developed a new drone with a range of more than 1,900km. Iran has supplied Hizbullah militants in Lebanon with a small fleet of drones, though their usefulness is limited: Hizbullah uses lobbed rather than guided rockets, and it is unlikely to muster a ground attack that would benefit from drone intelligence. But ownership of UAVs enhances Hizbullah’s prestige in the eyes of its supporters, says Amal Ghorayeb, a Beirut academic who is an expert on the group.
Eyes wide open
How effective are UAVs? In Iraq, the significant drop in American casualties over the past year and a half is partly attributable to the “persistent stare” of drone operators hunting for insurgents’ roadside bombs and remotely fired rockets, says Christopher Oliver, a colonel in the American army who was stationed in Baghdad until recently. “We stepped it up,” he says, adding that drone missions will continue to increase, in part to compensate for the withdrawal of troops. In Afghanistan and Iraq, almost all big convoys of Western equipment or personnel are preceded by a scout drone, according to Mike Kulinski of Enerdyne Technologies, a developer of military-communications software based in California. Such drones can stream video back to drivers and transmit electromagnetic jamming signals that disable the electronic triggers of some roadside bombs.
In military parlance, drones do work that would be “dull, dirty and dangerous” for soldiers. Some of them can loiter in the air for long periods. The Eagle-1, for example, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and EADS, Europe’s aviation giant, can stay aloft for more than 50 hours at a time. (France deployed several of these aircraft this year in Afghanistan.) Such long flights help operators, assisted with object-recognition software, to determine normal (and suspicious) patterns of movement for people and vehicles by tracking suspects for two wake-and-sleep cycles.
Drones are acquiring new abilities. New sensors that are now entering service can make out the “electrical signature” of ground vehicles by picking up signals produced by engine spark-plugs, alternators, and other electronics. A Pakistani UAV called the Tornado, made in Karachi by a company called Integrated Dynamics, emits radar signals that mimic a fighter jet to fool enemies.
UAVs are hard to shoot down. Today’s heat-seeking shoulder-launched missiles do not work above 3,000 metres or so, though the next generation will be able to go higher, says Carlo Siardi of Selex Galileo, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica in Ronchi dei Legionari, Italy. Moreover, drone engines are smaller—and therefore cooler—than those powering heavier, manned aircraft. In some of them the propeller is situated behind the exhaust source to disperse hot air, reducing the heat signature. And soldiers who shoot at aircraft risk revealing their position.
But drones do have an Achilles’ heel. If a UAV loses the data connection to its operator—by flying out of range, for example—it may well crash. Engineers have failed to solve this problem, says Dan Isaac, a drone expert at Spain’s Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology, a government research agency in Madrid. The solution, he and others say, is to build systems which enable an operator to reconnect with a lost drone by transmitting data via a “bridge” aircraft nearby.
In late June America’s Northrop Grumman unveiled the first of a new generation of its Global Hawk aircraft, thought to be the world’s fastest drone. It can gather data on objects reportedly as small as a shoebox, through clouds, day or night, for 32 hours from 18,000 metres—almost twice the cruising altitude of passenger jets. After North Korea detonated a test nuclear device in May, America said it would begin replacing its manned U-2 spy planes in South Korea with Global Hawks, which are roughly the size of a corporate jet.
Big drones are, however, hugely expensive. With their elaborate sensors, some cost as much as $60m apiece. Fewer than 30 Global Hawks have been bought. And it is not just the hardware that is costly: each Global Hawk requires a support team of 20-30 people. As the biggest UAVs get bigger, they are also becoming more expensive. Future American UAVs may cost a third as much as the F-35 fighter jet (each of which costs around $83m, without weapons). The Neuron, a jet-engine stealth drone developed by France’s Dassault Aviation and partners including Italy’s Alenia, will be about the size of the French manned Mirage fighter.
Small drones, by contrast, cost just tens of thousands of dollars. With electric motors, they are quiet enough for low-altitude spying. But batteries and fuel cells have only recently become light enough to open up a large market. A fuel cell developed by AMI Adaptive Materials, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, exemplifies the progress made. Three years ago AMI sold a 25-watt fuel cell weighing two kilograms. Today its fuel cell is 25% lighter and provides eight times as much power. This won AMI a $500,000 prize from the Department of Defence. Its fuel cells, costing about $12,000 each, now propel small drones.
Most small drones are launched without airstrips and are controlled in the field using a small computer. They can be recovered with nets, parachutes, vertically strung cords that snag a wingtip hook or a simple drop on the ground after a stall a metre or two in the air. Their airframes break apart to absorb the impact; users simply snap them back together.
With some systems, a ground unit can launch a drone for a quick bird’s-eye look around with very little effort. Working with financing from Italy’s defence ministry, Oto Melara, an Italian firm, has built prototypes of a short-range drone launched from a vehicle-mounted pneumatic cannon. The aircraft’s wings unfold upon leaving the tube. It streams back video while flying any number of preset round-trip patterns. Crucially, operators do not need to worry about fiddling with controls; the drone flies itself.
Send in the drones
Indeed, as UAVs become more technologically complex, there is also a clear trend towards making their control systems easier to use, according to a succession of experts speaking at a conference in La Spezia, Italy, held in April by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry association. For example, instead of manoeuvring aircraft, operators typically touch (or click on) electronic maps to specify points along a desired route. Software determines the best flight altitudes, speeds and search patterns for each mission—say, locating a well near a hilltop within sniping range of a road.
Next year Lockheed Martin, an American defence contractor, begins final testing of software to make flying drones easier for troops with little training. Called ECCHO, it allows soldiers to control aircraft and view the resulting intelligence on a standard hand-held device such as an iPhone, BlackBerry or Palm Pre. It incorporates Google Earth mapping software, largely for the same reason: most recruits are already proficient users.
What’s next? A diplomat from Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa, provides a clue. He says private companies in Europe are now offering to operate spy drones for his government, which has none. (Djibouti has declined.) But purchasing UAV services, instead of owning fleets, is becoming a “strong trend”, says Kyle Snyder, head of surveillance technology at AUVSI. About 20 companies, he estimates, fly spy drones for clients.
One of them, a division of Boeing called Insitu, sees a lucrative untapped market in Afghanistan, where the intelligence needs of some smaller NATO countries are not being met by larger allies. (Armed forces are often reluctant to share their intelligence for tactical reasons.) Alejandro Pita, Insitu’s head of sales, declines to name customers, but says his firm’s flights cost roughly $2,000 an hour for 300 or so hours a month. The drones-for-hire market is also expanding into non-military fields. Services include inspecting tall buildings, monitoring traffic and maintaining security at large facilities.
Drone sales and research budgets will continue to grow. Raytheon, an American company, has launched a drone from a submerged submarine. Mini helicopter drones for reconnaissance inside buildings are not far off. In China, which is likely to be a big market in the future, senior officials have recently talked of reducing troop numbers and spending more money developing “informationised warfare” capabilities, including unmanned aircraft.
There is a troubling side to all this. Operators can now
safely manipulate battlefield weapons from control rooms
half a world away, as if they are playing a video game.
Drones also enable a government to avoid the political
risk of putting combat boots on foreign soil. This makes
it easier to start a war, says P.W. Singer, the American
author of “Wired for War”, a recent bestseller about
robotic warfare. But like them or not, drones are here
to stay. Armed forces that master them are not just
securing their hold on air superiority—they are also
dramatically increasing its value.