At the basic level, Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UACV) differ from manned fighters only in that control of mission execution is done remotely in the former and from within the vehicle by humans in the latter. The degree of control of UAVs could extend all the way from total robotic control of decision making and mission execution by artificial intelligence to limited control of mission parameters by either artificial intelligence or remote human operators or a combination of both. Total robotic control is still in the future. This future could be as close as two decades or so away since the basic concepts and technologies are rapidly being validated.
UAVs have now become an integral part of the military inventories of almost all modern military powers…
Fifty years ago, such a comparison would have been an exercise in crystal gazing. In the mid-1960s, many of the technologies of warfare that exist today were already operationally deployed by the advanced military powers. Satellite reconnaissance and thermonuclear strike capabilities using the triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-based missiles and manned bombers were in place. The complementary technologies of air-to-air refueling, Airborne Early Warning & Control Systems (AWACS) and Airborne Electronic Warfare (AEW) systems were operational and first-generation Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) were entering service. Target drones and air-to-ground missiles were being modified to fly pre-programmed profiles on autopilot to serve as radar decoys and to probe enemy air defences. However, the real advent of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as we know them today, had to wait for a few more years.
An indicator of the exponential advances in the field of technology in the last 25 years is that UAVs have now become an integral part of the military inventories of almost all modern military powers. In the evolution of warfare, the human element is being replaced in the weapons delivery phase by intelligent machines. The world is now at the threshold of an era where some form of robotics coupled with artificial intelligence is making inroads into the decision-making processes of command and control. This shift will undoubtedly change the paradigms of planning and execution of warfare in the future.
Evolution of the UAV
Three decades or so ago, the main constraint to this development was one of technology. Advances in a few key fields had to precede the transformation from concept to operational reality. UAVs probably had their start in miniature flying models. These were initially guided by cables and once radio control technology progressed, by remote control. Autopilots were added to enable a rudimentary robotic control for simple profiles. Advances in miniaturisation of all components were needed to increase the capabilities of the platform of a given size. Cameras of increasing sophistication were soon added as payloads followed by other passive and active sensors. Digital communication for real time data transfer followed. To manage increasingly complex tasks, high speed data processing became necessary and this had to wait for developments in computer processing. The next step was weaponisation of the platform.
At present, the UAV is used primarily as a sensor platform for surveillance and reconnaissance…
At present, the UAV is used primarily as a sensor platform for surveillance and reconnaissance. Weaponised UAVs for air-to-surface weapons delivery are also operationally deployed. UAVs now have a degree of independent operation but are primarily remotely controlled by the human element. Decision making is solely by the human element in the control loop. Most of the UAVs deployed are optimised as some form of sensor platforms. The weaponised ones are just launch platforms with only the weapons themselves having the attributes of high speed and agility in order to survive in the face of enemy defenses till they impact their targets.
Some of the key areas of advances in technology that have been essential for development of UAVs need to be elaborated upon in slightly greater detail. A majority of these have progressed from laboratory concepts to deployable systems in the last three decades or so.
The transformation of the UAV from a hobby gadget to a powerful military tool was made possible only when the requirement of being physically connected to the operator was removed. Remote radio control achieved this and extended the range of controlled flight to the limits of radio range. Advances in control technology and advent of digital communication resulted in the ability of the operator to remotely control the UAV with inputs similar to those used for controlling conventional aircraft. Limitations of radio range were overcome by using more powerful trans-receivers, airborne relay platforms and eventually space-based satellites for global coverage. Mission profiles could be split up into various segments such as launch, transit, the operational phase and recovery – all capable of being handled by different operators at different locations. This also kept the human element well out of harm’s way. One danger is that remote control channels can be interfered with leading to the whole mission being compromised.
Advances in miniaturisation of all components were needed to increase the capabilities of the platform…
Robotics & Automation
Robotics in aviation has been with us from the autopilots predating World War II. Autopilots in manned aircraft now handle most flight profiles for commercial flights, the flight plans themselves being digitally generated by computers. In military aviation, weapons delivery profiles as also recoveries and landings, even on aircraft carriers, have been automated. In conjunction with computers, robots can be preprogrammed for complex tasks. They already have rudimentary reasoning and logical deductive powers. Robotic control of motor vehicles in crowded traffic is a reality at least in trials. UAVs of the future will rely on robotic control to achieve truly independent operation without human intervention.
Miniaturisation has always been a key element in aviation technology. The cavity magnetron, which is at the heart of all domestic microwave ovens, was developed during World War II and transformed the radar from a huge unwieldy ground-based apparatus to a portable device that could be fitted on ships and aircraft. It was an important force multiplier in winning the battle of the Atlantic. Similar advances in control and power systems, communications and sensors have been crucial in making UAVs viable. A simple example of the advances in miniaturisation is that of the average smart phone which packs the capabilities of a personal computer, an audio visual entertainment system, a radio trans receiver, a satellite location and navigation tool, a power source and many other devices into a small instrument weighing less than 150 gm.
Advances in sensor technology have made light-weight digital sensor packages having far greater capabilities than older analogue systems a reality. They have also become far more rugged than older systems, require little maintenance and have the capabilities of gathering, processing and forwarding data in near real time, a crucial attribute in modern conflict situations. In fact the problem is now one of information overload since the large volumes of data produced within such a short time frame cannot be digested easily. Increasing use of digital sensors, however, brings in the danger of hacking into the systems to corrupt or destroy data or to feed in false data.
Increasing use of digital sensors, however, brings in the danger of hacking into the systems to corrupt or destroy data…
All of the above capabilities will only be of academic interest unless information reaches the decision maker in time. High speed digital data transfer between machines themselves, machines to operators and between operators or decision makers at different locations is now common. The danger is that communications are vulnerable to interception, interference and jamming.
The whole technology of modern UAVs and in fact, all modern machines be they cars, ships, planes, satellites, engines and control systems, are heavily dependent on computers. They are the brains of the system. Their accuracy and capacity to process data rapidly determines how well the system functions. Miniaturisation of components such as memory chips and transistors had to be first developed through new manufacturing processes before powerful computers of small size, low power consumption and rugged construction could be made. Advances in programming languages have also boosted hardware capabilities. This has been possible in the last 20 years or so. Again taking the example of an average smart phone, this has more processing power than the on board computers used in the lunar landing module of the Apollo manned mission to the moon in 1969.
Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs)
PGMs or smart weapons were earlier considered as exotic weapons to be used only against high value targets embedded in areas covered by sophisticated Air Defence (AD) systems. With increasing effectiveness of AD systems, their expanding lethal envelopes and high costs of aircraft plus reduced numbers available in inventories of air forces, unguided weapons with large errors are no longer the prime weapons of choice. Some form of post-launch guidance and increased stand-off ranges have become the norm.
For UAVs, which as of now are more vulnerable to AD weapons and have limitations on payload, PGMs are perhaps the only effective weapon type. They are now being used not only against high value targets but even against individual insurgents on foot or in small vehicles. At times, the cost of the mission is greater than the annual revenue of the whole province where the target is located!