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Sat 2 Dec 2006 04:00 AM

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Automatic for the people

Unmanned military planes have been around for decades, and it may soon finds its way into civilian use. David Robertson of The Times reports.

Milestones in fighter development emerged when Royal Air Force Harrier jets attacked the mountain stronghold of Taleban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan last month; they were aided by one of the military’s newest pieces of technology — an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.

The mission was part of Operation Mountain Fury; a continuing project to flush out Taleban and Al-Qaeda from their mountain caves in eastern Afghanistan.

American B1 bombers flew in at night to pound the mountain caves and, when the Taleban fled, the British Harriers struck.

A UAV flew silently overhead monitoring the mountain side with its infrared sensors.

These images were relayed to the Harrier pilots, who used the information to target the fleeing Taleban soldiers.

The squadron commander told a recent gathering of aerospace executives and RAF officers, including Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, that the UAV had been a vital part of the mission’s success. Both the United States Air Force and the RAF believe that UAVs have a vital role in the future of air combat. They can operate for longer than manned aircraft and can be deployed in areas where the risk to pilots is too high.

Commercial uses for UAVs are also beginning to be explored, with oil companies expressing an interest in deploying them to monitor pipelines. Governments are considering how they could be used for border security and search-and-rescue missions.

Ultimately, the aim is to remove pilots from the sky completely and have both fighter jets and commercial airliners flown by computers. While this may seem farfetched, the Ministry of Defence believes that the jet fighters of the future will all be unmanned.

It does not envisage buying any more manned fighters after the Joint Strike Fighter, or F35, reaches the end of its life span in about 30 years.

More automation in the civil aerospace sector also seems inevitable. Passengers may be alarmed at the prospect of boarding a Boeing or Airbus that has no cockpit, but UAV experts point out that most commercial jets are already heavily automated.

They fly on auto-pilot for most of the journey and even have auto-land and land-in-fog systems.

Andy Wilson, sales and marketing director of BAE’s autonomous vehicles division, said: “This is going to be a philosophical debate, not a technological debate. We have the ability to do these things, but how long will it take for people to accept that there is nobody at the front of the plane?”

The US is currently leading the world in UAV technology and the plane that flew with the British Harriers during Operation Mountain Fury belonged to the USAF.

However, British companies are moving into the market with a stereotypical use of innovation rather than resources to develop UAV technology.

A single Northrop Grumman Global Hawk costs more than four F16s, but when BAE Systems set about building a UAV its engineers simply stuck a motorcycle engine on the back of a glider kit. The BMW motorbike chassis is still leaning against a shed at BAE’s factory in Warton, Lancashire.

BAE’s Herti UAV, which stands for high endurance rapid technology insertion, became the first unmanned aircraft to fly in the UK when it was launched from a remote airstrip in western Scotland last year.

The project has only recently beendeclassified. Herti has now joined the RAF’s Warfare Centre and the military’s technical experts are working with BAE to develop the aircraft’s surveillance and reconnaissance role.

In the next two weeks BAE will also be awarded a US$386.8m contract to develop a fighter UAV, which could be the blueprint for all future unmanned fighters built in the UK. QinetiQ, another British defence contractor, is also working on UAVs with a project called Zephyr.

This will be little more than a flying wing, 18 metres wide and covered in solar cells. The cells will power tiny propellers and charge batteries that will keep the plane flying at night.

Zephyr is being developed for long missions, three to six months in duration, and it will fly at extreme altitudes doing the sort of surveillance work currently done by U2 spy planes.

Apart from cost, another big difference between the UAVs being developed in the UK and US is the degree of autonomy. The UAV involved in Operation Mountain Fury was controlled by a man with a joystick sitting in a bunker.

The British companies are working towards a fully autonomous system and when Herti flew last year the only human involvement was to click a mouse that made it take off and then click again to switch it off after landing.

Having successfully made this first flight, BAE is now developing threat-assessment and avoidance software to allow the UAV to react to changes in its environment — such as the appearance of another aircraft in its vicinity.

Mr Wilson said: “UAVs offer huge potential because they can go places where you wouldn’t want to send people. They are also excellent for the sort of monotonous work involved in surveillance and reconnaissance.”

“UAVs don’t get bored. They don’t have to come down when their flying hours are over and they don’t have to come down for food.”


The amount that BAE Systems is investing in unmanned ‘eyes and ears in the skies’.


The number of hours that Herti can stay in the air.


The approximate cost of Herti’s BMW engine and kit airframe.


Herti’s ceiling.

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