The question has hung over the industry that makes unmanned air vehicles for the past nine years. After the war is over, will the UAV boom go bust?

It does not help that so many liken the current era of UAVs to the First World War-fuelled evolution of manned flight from tinkerer's hobby to mainline industry. Armistice Day brought peace to the world, albeit briefly, and ruin to a nascent aviation industry that never fully recovered until the run-up to the Second World War.

Could the same downfall occur to the fledgling UAV industry as the last combat brigade leaves Iraq this month and the USA continues to debate its long-term commitment to Afghanistan?

Most signs at the AUVSI exhibition in Denver last week pointed to a thriving future for aircraft unburdened by human limitations. US military officers no longer sound resigned to the creeping influence of UAVs. Instead, they welcome it. Military planners view robotic aircraft as the solution to today's hardest problem: how to reduce the impact over time of soaring personnel costs.

The focus of science and technology investment now is developing new tools that harness the potential manpower savings of UAVs, such as increasing the level of vehicle autonomy and demoting the human from a ground-based pilot to multi-aircraft "supervisor".

Another priority is to reform the US military's ad hoc and inefficient operating procedures for UAVs, developed under war-time conditions with little thought to a coherent and smooth system for global operations.

The fact these changes are coming show that UAVs are maturing from short-term fixes for urgent problems to solutions to long-term, systemic issues.

That is the positive outlook for UAVs, but there remain grave concerns about their future.

US airspace restrictions for UAVs may be a necessary concession to public safety, but they will smother any chance of growth for UAVs if the comparative freedom of Afghanistan ceases to be available.

Moreover, the UAV industry must persuade military decision makers to trust autonomous technology to make decisions at least on par with the quality of humans in similar situations. The promise of manpower savings will never be realised as long as UAVs are required to be controlled directly from the ground.

Finally, UAVs have got to become more reliable, to cut down on accident rates.

Until then, the UAV industry will never break the Armistice Day curse.

Source: Flight International