2008/08/25

Medium UAVs

I've got the recent issue of "Flug Revue" in front of me on my desk.
It has an article ("Mantis enthüllt") about BAE Systems' drone projects.

The author mentions that the drone Mantis (comparable to Predator) shall get triple redundancy FbW controls.

That reminds me of a general problem of such medium-sized drones:
They don't live up to their earlier promises. One of the original arguments for such drones was that they would be cheaper than comparable planes because they don't need the same flight safety (no pilot's life at risk).
Well, that's apparently just wishful thinking today because the necessity to train with these drones and the civilian market prospects enforce civilian aviation safety standards.
There are other cost drivers as well; these drones always require good sensors, probably more than a comparable manned plane (like Bronco or Pucará) because it lacks the dual Mk.1 eyeballs and cheap binoculars of the pilot. The drones require lots of satellite bandwidth for the (video) datalink, costs that should be included in a honest assessment of their costs.

Another medium UAV problem is their survivability.
The official requirements of the USAF for a Predator successor ask for its survivability in a low intensity threat and limited survivability in a medium threat situations; an official statement about the uselessness of such medium drones in a high threat situation. This applies to all typical COIN aircraft, but it's nevertheless often ignored.

Small UAVS can be smaller than any manned aircraft and explore new opportunities.

Very high altitude UAVs save a lot of weight because they need no pressurized cabin - their extremely good endurance is also a favourable characteristic.

Medium UAVs otherwise seem to have significant disadvantages in comparison to aircraft like the OV-10D+ Bronco - which had much better combat capabilities (including the potential for a mini gunship capability with a turreted 20mm Gatling) and had the speed to arrive at a hot spot quickly.
The current (since about 2002) Predator/Reaper hype seems to reinvent the wheel, to recreate capabilities that were lost only early in the 90's. The audience seems to have forgotten or never known about the manned alternatives' capabilities that the UAVs emulate (partially) with so much effort.

Indeed, many people have argued for manned COIN aircraft in the past years, with little success. The justified drive to test innovations seems to have allied with a political drive for zero-casualty-chance UAVs - and overshot the mark.

Sven Ortmann

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