Few systems capture the imagination of military strategists as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). UAVs have been in use for some time. Indeed, one of the most memorable news reports coming out of Desert Storm 12 years ago was the surrender of enemy troops to a UAV. But UAVs went stealth until recently when two of them, Predator and Global Hawk, were employed very effectively in Iraq, gathering intelligence and conducting reconnaissance and surveillance.
Today, at least 10 different types of UAVs support U.S. troops. But for all of their capabilities, the UAVs have yet to demonstrate what the military calls SEAD, or suppression of enemy air defense/strike/airborne electronic attack capabilities, except in a very limited capacity with the Predator.
"The weaponization aspect of UAVs needs additional effort," said Dyke Weatherington, deputy to the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) UAV Planning Task Force, in a recent Pentagon briefing. "That’s the challenge that DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has taken on in the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) programs." DARPA and the Army have sponsored the development of two prototype UCAVs as part of the DoD’s Future Combat Systems Program. These UCAVs are now undergoing extensive testing.
In addition to their value to the military, homeland-security specialists are now seriously considering using UAVs domestically for round-the-clock surveillance, using sensors and video cameras. As part of this effort, the DoD is also working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate UAVs into U.S. airspace.
"We see this as a multiyear effort," says Air Force Major Jim McCormick, comanager of a newly established UAV Interoperability Working Group that’s addressing this issue. The objective, according to McCormick, is to organize a common set of rules for the use of UAVs across the U.S. within five years. Boeing and DARPA said they have already demonstrated that a UAV controlled from the ground could be integrated into air-traffic-control airspace with manned aircraft.
Other potential uses for UAVs include traffic control, weather forecasting, monitoring forest fires, and disaster assessment. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Environmental Laboratory, working with NASA, hopes to begin testing high-flying, solar-powered UAVs for remote sensing to monitor natural disasters by 2007.