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
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
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
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."