While there is no doubt that unmanned air vehicles have achieved some outstanding successes, there is still some way to go before they are universally accepted and regarded as an everyday element of the aerospace world.

There is a host of successful programmes - the Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk, General Atomics RQ-1 Predator, numerous Israeli systems and even the once ill-starred BAE Systems Phoenix, which like its namesake, has risen from the ashes to provide a range of capabilities.

Such systems have demonstrated usefulness as reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition platforms, doing jobs ill suited to manned platforms for a variety of reasons, including the tedious nature of the mission or the desire to keep manned machines away from danger.

There is, however, still some way to go. Today's systems require huge numbers of personnel, including two or three "pilots", which restricts the cost benefits of introducing UAVs; efficient, user-friendly mission planning and re-planning systems need to be developed; unmanned platforms need closer integration into concepts of operations; airspace management and co-ordination with manned platforms should be improved and automatic target recognition must be developed.

Successful programmes have taught us that it is important to define a UAV's mission during the early days of development and to stick close to that until at least initial operational status has been achieved. Too often programmes have been suffocated by requirements creep that stretches development and complicates systems.

Despite the continuing slippage of a decision to move Global Hawk into low rate initial production, the programme is attracting interest worldwide and tests in Australia starting in April will evaluate the aircraft in a host of new roles - maritime surveillance for one. The US Coast Guard (USCG) has also identified a wide range of missions for Global Hawk. Like so many others, the USCG is attracted by the UAV's ability to stay aloft for 35h allowing the use of its manned aircraft in more productive, less mundane roles that do not bore the crew, do not consume flight time duty hours and are a sensible use of airframe life.

UAVs are delivering new capabilities to the warfighter rather than being exact replacements for manned aircraft. Predator, for instance, could be viewed as simply a substitute for forward air control aircraft, but it stays on station for much longer, providing the force commander with more detailed information. It can aid target recognition, can designate targets for fighters and if trials due this week are successful, it will be able to destroy those targets.

UAV development is linked to a plague of problems, not least crashes and never-ending software issues. But these are no different from manned programmes, which also typically suffer software problems and accidents. Manned aircraft admittedly suffer fewer crashes, but a pilot in the vehicle has a better view of the problem and the safety systems integrated into manned platforms also help save the aircraft.

This must change and UAVs must be given a better chance of success. Programme offices should define finite requirements that are not stretched until at least initial operational capability has been achieved. Overseers need to acknowledge risk in developing programmes and accept that UAVs do crash - they are, after all, considered an attritionable asset in service. As with manned platforms, risk reduction and technology demonstration should be an integral part of development and procurement to manage and mitigate risk. There should be a major effort to improve mission planning and other systems to cut the manpower overheads of operating UAVs; instead of many pilots for one UAV, one pilot should control many UAVs.

Likewise there should be technology acquisition/research and development programmes dedicated to UAV systems. Finally, more work should be dedicated to integrating UAVs with manned platforms within a system-of-systems and to developing regulations to govern the use of civil UAVs. Following only some of these initiatives would take UAVs to a new level, and into an everyday part of the aerospace world.

Source: Flight International