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The plan for smaller, faster, deadlier UAVs

Jun. 10, 2009 - 05:30AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 10, 2009 - 05:30AM  |  
The vision for the future unmanned fleet includes more than sparrow-sized aircraft. New engines and precision-guided munitions now in development will make the unmanned fleet faster and more lethal.
The vision for the future unmanned fleet includes more than sparrow-sized aircraft. New engines and precision-guided munitions now in development will make the unmanned fleet faster and more lethal. (BRYAN SMITH / STAFF)
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Engines will reduce fuel consumption by up to 35 percent beginning in 2021, the Air Force Research Laboratory says. (AIR FORCE RESEARCH LABORATORY)
Small unmanned vehicles will be launched midair from gunships beginning in 2014. (BRYAN SMITH / STAFF)
A demo X-51A Scramjet Engine will travel 600 nautical miles in 10 minutes. (AIR FORCE RESEARCH LABORATORY)

Before the end of the next decade, unmanned aerial vehicles no bigger than a dragonfly and faster than a hummingbird will be darting in and out of buildings.

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Before the end of the next decade, unmanned aerial vehicles no bigger than a dragonfly and faster than a hummingbird will be darting in and out of buildings.

The Air Force laid out its vision for the next generation of UAVs late last month in a report that has a page-by-page breakdown of the aircraft, controls, munitions, sensors and construction materials.

The report's release came just days before Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told defense and military leaders that the service has "turned a corner" in its pursuit of unmanned technology, describing current operations as "very Neanderthal."

In his speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Schwartz suggested an unmanned cargo aircraft might be in the service's future but made it clear he doesn't support fielding an unmanned nuclear bomber. The 90-page report includes UAVs assigned to tanker and fighter as well as intelligence missions.

Schwartz is expected sometime this summer to sign off on a plan that will define UAS activity inside the service for the next 30 years. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, written by a Schwartz-appointed UAS Task Force, will be made public after it gets OK'd, probably in late June.

In the UAV report, the Air Force Research Laboratory lays out a schedule for each aircraft.

Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs), about the size of a sparrow, could be ready to fly by 2015. Fifteen years later, the service wants to have swarms of MAVs no larger than dragonflies up in the air.

These MAVs, to be used mostly in cities, will be designed to blend into the scenery, according to a news release.

"This is where the sensor is made to look like something that belongs in the area such as an insect or bird, so that it is ignored," the report states. "One of the primary missions driving MAV development is the need to fill the covert close-in sensing requirement."

The research lab wants these vehicles to mimic birds and insects in every way — perching, hovering and flying in and out of buildings. To make that happen, AFRL wants to develop flapping wings that will make it easier to fly through wind gusts and inside garages or caves.

Besides wanting to shrink its UAVs, the Air Force wants them to fly faster — much faster.

The X-51A Scramjet Engine, designed to fly six times the speed of sound, will launch into space — its first test — this fall. Air Force officials, though, think it could serve as a UAV as easily as it could a space launch vehicle.

Initially, officials want the Scramjet to fly 600 nautical miles in 10 minutes. The next goal is to lengthen the range to 3,000 nautical miles, according to the report.

By 2021, the Highly Efficient Embedded Turbine Engine, or HEETE, should be ready. It is a low-observable, fuel-efficient engine that will be integrated across the service's fleet.

Over half the service's mobility and ISR fleet will be able to operate with the HEETE, according to the research lab.

Bombs and missiles

AFRL is also developing munitions systems for the UAVs.

One is a precision missilelike bomb for urban strikes that could be mounted on multiple platforms. Designed to cut down on collateral damage, Suburb Warrior could get a flight test as early as 2014.

An integrated submunition guidance system called Sniper will allow UAV operators to target up to four enemies simultaneously inside urban environments. Flight tests are due by 2011 and could be integrated onto UAVs and long-range cruise missiles, according to AFRL.

The Tube Launched Expendable UAS (TLEU) will be launched in-flight by another aircraft. The missilelike weapon will have a warhead as well as a sensor to send back a feed to provide situational awareness to troops. The TLEU will be launched off a gunship and scheduled to reach initial operational capability by 2014.

Finally, the AFRL outlines the steps that the service is taking toward having pilots flying multiple UAVs as well as multiple types of UAVs at a time. Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Human and Automations Lab shows pilots could fly up to 12 aircraft at the same time.

In his speech to the defense and military leaders, Schwartz said the Air Force wants its airmen who pilot unmanned aerial vehicles to fly more than one of the aircraft at a time. Currently, the service flies one MQ-1 Predator with one crew at one ground control station.

"Now that is a very Neanderthal way of operating," he said. "Ideally, we'd be able to operate more than one Predator from the same ground station with one crew. That is achievable."

Schwartz described the operation of multiple UAVs at a time by a single crew as a "turning point" for the service, which wants to continue expanding the role of unmanned aircraft. Already, the Air Force has increased the number of Predator and MQ-9 Reaper orbits it flies over Iraq and Afghanistan from 11 in 2007 to 33 today. The goal is 50 by 2011.

"In a visitation to the future, we see UAS fill roles across a variety of missions," said Col. Eric Mathewson, director of the Air Force Unmanned Aerial System Task Force.

"It really comes down to the effect desired and those might be best delivered by a smaller system, and that's what we are going to be investigating," Mathewson said.

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