The biologically inspired prototype is in the second phase of a three-phase DARPA NAV program, started in 2005. AeroVironment is one of four companies with phase-one contracts to develop miniature drones. The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., and Lockheed Martin have built rotary-wing NAVs, while AeroVironment and Oakland, Calif.,-based MicroPropulsion Corp. focused on flapping-wing aircraft.
Drones are promoted to the American public as a way to strike against threats to the U.S. without putting airmen or soldiers in harm's way. Another purported benefit of drones is the precision with which they attack America's enemies. Numerous reports of civilian casualties, however, indicate that these robotic aircraft are precise only to a certain degree. The CIA and White House have been quick to point out they have found no evidence of collateral deaths from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq, a claim disputed on several fronts, most recently in a report compiled by British and Pakistani journalists.
Reports of the number of civilian deaths attributed drone strikes vary, particularly in Pakistan. The Long War Journal, a Web site produced by nonprofit Public Multimedia Inc., claims that, since 2006 in Pakistan alone, drone strikes have killed 2,080 leaders and operatives from Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups as well as 138 civilians. Meanwhile, the U.S. government claims that its drones have killed more than 2,000 militants in Pakistan and about 50 noncombatants since 2001. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organization based at City University in London, disputes the U.S. government statistics, saying its research concluded that of the 2,292 people killed in U.S. attacks since 2004, 385 were civilians, including more than 160 children.
In an August 14 New York Times editorial, former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, a retired admiral, pointed out that, particularly in Pakistan, "drone strikes are no longer the most effective strategy for eliminating al Qaeda's ability to attack us." His reasoning: "Drone strikes hinder Qaeda fighters while they move and hide, but they can endure the attacks and continue to function." In the meantime civilian casualties from drone strikes discourage support within Pakistan for the U.S.'s efforts to eliminate al Qaeda from that region, he wrote. Blair, however, does not call for an end to drone strikes but rather closer coordination between the U.S. and Pakistan militaries when planning such strikes.
One of the U.S. military's goals is to increase the use of drones on a variety of mission types. In addition to adding MAVs and NAVs to the mix, Maybury sees Air Force RPAs delivering fuel and other supplies to troops in the field. RPAs will also become increasingly autonomous, monitored but not necessarily piloted by humans. This will not be easy as autonomous systems must have the capability to adapt to changing conditions with the help of artificial intelligence that aids in decision making. Still, a long-term goal is to create fleets of RPAs that can travel as a self-coordinated unit and strike in concert. The Air Force claims it will build in override controls that enable pilots on the ground to reassign or reroute RPAs if necessary.
Missions for unmanned aircraft systems are expected to expand from reconnaissance and attacking ground targets to a much wider array of missions, including personnel recovery, airborne refueling, medical evacuation, and missile defense (pdf), according to FAS.
In addition to launching missiles, future drones may someday be able to fire directed energy weapons, including lasers to disrupt or destroy enemy equipment and high-power millimeter-wave systems designed to burn enemy combatants without being lethal.
Drones will also be able to stay in the air for years, rather than hours or days, at a time. "Last year, we did a lot of work in energy, which includes ultra-long endurance aircraft such as the Vulture and Integrated Sensor Is the Structure (ISIS), which are powered in part by lightweight solar cells," Maybury says.
Regardless of how far drone technology advances it is clear that the utility they have demonstrated in supporting U.S. troops over the past 10 years will ensure that these remotely controlled aircraft are here to stay.