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Mon, Nov 24, 2003

Future Of Aviation: Unmanned?

UAV's Make Major Inroads

Ever feel one of those cold chills suddenly run up your spine? Try this:

"It's no longer 'yes or no' -- the technology and the systems are accepted," says Daryl Davidson, executive director at the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). "These things are here to stay and they are proliferating."

Yikes.

What does that mean for the thousands of men and women who earn their livings in the sky? A century after the Wright brothers launched the first powered flight from Kitty Hawk (SC), a large segment of aviation's future looks unmanned.

As Davidson says, UAVs are proliferating. But there are still questions about their abilities to perform over crowded urban areas and, of course, about the cost.

"They don't have a pilot to get them out of trouble," says Steve Zaloga, an analyst with Teal Group, an aerospace and defense research firm. "The local TV station isn't going to be happy to have a million-dollar plane crash into traffic or someone's house. It's going to be a hazard and it's going to be a cost issue."

There's also an issue of valuable bandwidth -- UAV's need lots of the spectrum to operate. In spite of these hurdles, however, the UAV revolution continues.

Typically, many of the latest UAV applications will be pioneered by the military. By 2006, the Pentagon hopes to begin fielding Boeing's X-45, a UCAV capable of carrying 1,000 pounds of explosives to its target -- either preprogrammed or inputted while the vehicle is already on the way. The Marines are now testing a tiny, 5-pound UAV scout called "Dragon-Eye," which will provide short-range "over the hill" reconnaissance data to soldiers on the ground. The USMC plans to put 311 "Dragon Eyes" in the field in the next few years.

"Everyone saw their use in operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, so there's growing confidence in the systems," says George Guerra, deputy program manager for the Global Hawk at Northrop Grumman. "What we are able to do is remarkable."

But what about commercial use? High costs and safety concerns have so far kept most civilian drones on the ground. But that, too, may be changing. NASA has tested UAVs over California's wine country, checking for frost damage. The Forest Service plans to use UAVs as fire spotters. Australia is looking at using drones for border security and anti-smuggling surveillance. And yet, the expense of unmanned aerial vehicles continues to limit their civilian uses.

Still, it's the civilian market where developers see big dollars signs. "The future is promising," says AUVSI's Davidson. "It won't be The Jetsons. But we'll see very utilitarian uses of UAVs. We'll see them on every runway of every airport doing patrols and day-to-day routine tasks."

FMI: www.uav.wff.nasa.gov

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