Stepping up drone missions
In the past year alone, the Air Force has supported more than 400 firefights involving RPAs, Maybury says. In 2010 they captured 30,000 hours of full motion video during their missions along with 11,000 high fidelity images. "We call them remotely piloted aircraft because in fact we have professionals—both pilots and sensor operators—operating them," Maybury says. "I don't even like the word 'drones.' It sounds boring personally."
The Air Force's large-scale RPA deployment began after 9/11; it had a single RPA in operation in 2001. The Air Force now operates at least four different models of medium-sized or large unmanned aircraft. In addition to its 175 Predators, there are 14 jet-powered Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks, the largest RPAs in the Air Force's fleet with wingspans of 35 to 40 meters. About 40 turboprop-powered General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers (a larger version of the Predator) were supposed to be entering the fleet this year. The Air Force also uses the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, a "stealthy reconnaissance aircraft whose existence has only recently been acknowledged by the Air Force," the CBO reports.
Last year, for the first time in its history, the Air Force trained more RPA pilots than fixed-wing pilots. RPAs are often equipped with full-motion cameras, infrared cameras to provide night vision, signals intelligence sensors to eavesdrop on communications and a variety of other sensors. In addition to a pilot, each RPA has a sensor operator who directs the cameras and signals sensors during a mission. All of this information is fed to a system of "exploiters," Air Force personnel who analyze all of that streaming video and other signal intelligence coming in and feed information as needed back to the pilot and sensor operator.
Other branches of the military, as well as the CIA, have also come to rely heavily on drones. The Army primarily operates three medium-sized models of unmanned aircraft—Northrop Grumman MQ-5B Hunters, AAI Corp. RQ-7 Shadows (also used by the Marines), and two different types of Predators. The CBO estimates that the Army alone will spend about $5.9 billion in the next five years to add to its drone fleet.
The Navy is testing two new types of RPA—the long-endurance Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) aircraft—a Global Hawk variant—and the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Firescout unmanned helicopter. The Navy's plans call for purchasing 65 BAMS through 2026 and 168 Firescouts through 2028, according to the CBO.
ROVER ground stations
This wide variety of drones enables attacks on a diversity of enemy positions, but perhaps as significant is the ability to communicate with troops on the ground. This is done with the help of Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) ground stations that combine a ruggedized laptop, software, a handset and a radio to give troops live, overhead intelligence from a variety of platforms—manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, just about anything with a camera able to stream a data feed, says Chris Bronk, an information technology policy research fellow at Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston and a former U.S. State Department diplomat. "This helps American soldiers see beyond the next hill, in real time," he adds. The original ROVER system, developed in 2002, required a Humvee to lug it around. Newer systems can fit into a backpack.
ROVERs "are particularly transformational because now you have people on the ground who can see what the aircraft is seeing in the air in real time while also communicating with the DCGS [distributed common ground station] back in the U.S.," Maybury says. Troops with ROVERs can even request that RPA pilots and sensor operators fly or scan in a particular direction or over a particular area.
A key development in RPA operation over the past five years has been the ability to install systems of multiple cameras such as the Gorgon Stare video capture system and the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS). "Now we're able to see not just a single full-motion video but actually wide area motion imagery [WAMI], which provides multi-spot infrared imagery," Maybury says. "Ten years ago, you get a single feed, today we're looking at 65 spots of two frames a second around a wide area." A ROVER can dial into a particular channel or tell a sensor operator to follow a particular vehicle on a particular channel.
Micro air vehicles
Military and intelligence units have become increasingly interested in smaller drones that can improve reconnaissance and surveillance operations. Some of these drones are hand launched while others are even smaller and resemble birds and insects.
The Air Force Research Laboratory Air Vehicles Directorate Micro Air Vehicle Integration & Application Research Institute at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio is dedicated to the development and testing of micro air vehicles (MAVs). Less than 0.6 meters in length, a MAV is capable of operating below rooftop level in an urban environment. It may have a fixed wing, rotary wing (helicopter), flapping wing or even no wings. The Air Force has been developing MAVs as a way of getting in close on enemy fighters, although such small devices are difficult to control (even a wind gust can take them out of position).
AeroVironment, Inc. is developing even smaller drones that weigh less than 20 grams. DARPA contracted the Monrovia, Calif., company to design and build a flying prototype "hummingbird-like" aircraft for the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) program. In February AeroVironment introduced its 16-centimeter-long Nano Hummingbird, capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, flying forward and backward, as well as rotating clockwise and counter-clockwise under remote control and carrying a small video camera.