Transitory drone tech implications


The current use of remotely-piloted vehicles (usually with video feed from drone to user) is likely but a step en route to more or less (likely most of the time) autonomous drones on a battlefield.

To simplify, I see it like this:

1st step: manned aviation*

2nd step: remotely-controlled aviation with high bandwidth feedback

3rd step: remotely-controlled aviation with low bandwidth feedback

4th step: partially autonomous unmanned aviation with occasional communication only (mission updates and reports)

The 1st step can be done without radios.The 2nd step requires a low bandwidth radio uplink for control and a high bandwidth radio downlink, typically for a videostream. The 3rd generation will process the video data such that a much smaller bandwidth downlink is good enough. The 4th generation will make do with less than a kilobyte of data transfer per day if it communicates by radio at all.

The bandwidth is the bottleneck. You cannot have a high density battle with thousands of drones operating in a 5x5 km area and transmitting a 720p colour video feed simultaneously. 

You may have that drone density with the 3rd step, and at the 4th step you could concentrate drones more than any practical necessity. In fact, having very many drones in an area may be beneficial then because drones could relay messages and thus reduce the required power of the onboard radio.

The limitation caused by drones largely using certain frequency bands further reduces how many drones can be concentrated. The classic RC channels have already been augmented by 5.8 GHz and drone onboard radios may be built for many different frequency bands (though antenna size and frequency band are linked), but that takes time, and we may just as well progress to step #3 instead. Many other frequencies are in use for other purposes or physically unsuitable anyway.

The drawn-out and long frontline nature of the Russo-Ukrainian War offers step #2 drones great opportunities to shine, though jamming equipment will be rolled out to counter RC aircraft. The question is whether we'll see a high density conflict that requires step #3 drones before either jamming becomes too effective or effective step #4 drones arrive in quantity and assume tactical roles other than pre-planned missions.


*: Especially notable examples were the late First World War ground attack aircraft and the Second World War flying forward observers.

1 comment:

  1. Realistically, more sophisticated systems will use a combination of #2-4.

    Drones can fly out using waypoint navigation alone (#4). Digital beamforming array antennas on the controllers can use high or low bandwidth links (#2-3) to more closely operating drones by virtue of their narrow main lobes and steerable nulls. This will also reduce the effectiveness of jamming.

    If drone swarms can communicate with each other in a mesh network, then the controller may only need to talk to one of them.

    Suicide drones can transition from waypoints, to real time data video for target acquisition, and then lock on to the target for autonomous attack (Similar to Spike LR's LOAL capability).

    I suspect there will be drones carrying payloads to hunt jammers as well, if there aren't already.

    I guess the big question is how far do you really need to go down this path. The Ukrainians continue to use comparatively unsophisticated commercial drones even in the face of Russian jamming. Sometimes cheap and numerous still beats sophisticated.