Drones or otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are aircrafts which are remotely-piloted eliminating the need for a pilot to be on board during a given flight. In the civilian life, drones are a common occurrence and hardly will a week pass before you set your eyes on one.
They have an array of applications ranging from being mere hobby gadgets to their increasing use in professional photography and cinematography, intelligence, mapping, reconnaissance as well as target destination besides being used in rescue missions. However, it’s their use in military operations that interest us today. Actually, the technology started in the military and nowadays there are several types of military drones that will blow your mind away.
UAVs can be used for autonomous flights, this being based on pre-programmed flight plans or through the help of more complex dynamic automation systems. It is good to appreciate the increasing role of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in solving certain conflicts and the execution of high-profile attacks just as is the case for the present day military planners.
This article will explore a brief history of the use of drones in military applications and the various categories of military drones based on size, their use and their complexity.
A brief history of the use of drones in military operations
The name drone was derived originally from the male bee which is characterized by a specific buzzing sound which is quite deep and sometimes annoying. This could have been a similar scenario for the initial drones but the modern day drones have evolved and the main trait that named them (the buzzing) is barely noticeable. That’s why the industry prefers to call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles now, and you can find out much more about these great gadgets in our article – What is a drone.
The idea of having an unmanned aircraft, was born during WWI when both the US and France were working on developing an automatic airplane. In the end, France was the one who actually managed to put together this sort of contraption. The device was called the Voisin BN3 biplane and was able to fly for about 100km.
The interest to develop unmanned aerial vehicles was further sparked during the WWII when various parties suffered big losses occasioned by the reconnaissance aircraft. A need to develop unmanned aerial vehicles that would do away with the pilot or an observer was necessitated by the bad turn of events in order to avoid further detrimental effects.
Actually, the first time when drones were used for observation was in 1973, during the Vietnam War. However, in the modern world, UAVs make a lot of sense, especially on the battlefield. They are highly convenient since you don’t have to worry about deploying people behind enemy lines since no one will be on board in case the device gets destroyed.
It is good to appreciate that many people in the field prefer to use the term Unmanned Aircraft Systems since a UAV is usually part of a system made out of:
- one or more drones destined for observation – these are equipped with a series of sensors,
- ground control stations – these are the base of the system, controlling the drones and receiving data from sensors
- The radio connection that is established between the drones and the ground control stations.
The FAA has adopted the UAS – Unmanned Aircraft System acronym, to capture the complex systems which include ground stations and other elements besides the actual air vehicles.
Categories of the military drones
UAVs in the military are usually categorized based on their weight, range, speed as well as their specific capabilities.
The classification described below is the same used by NATO troupes.
Class I (< 150 kg): micro, mini or small drones
There are several types of Class I drones that can be used in the Computerized Command Control Communication & Information solutions to provide ISTAR that is Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance capabilities. You could have micro, mini or small drones in the Class I categories.
A good example of a micro drones in Class I is the FULMAR fixed wing micro-UAV which has a maximum takeoff weight of about 20 kg. It was developed by Thales and Wake engineering and it has an endurance of 12 hours and a range of about 90km. The top speed of this UAV is 100km/h and the maximum altitude it can get to is 4000m with a payload of 8 kilograms. You can readily integrate the Fulmar UAV with the Thales maritime as well as land border surveillance solutions.
This drone is usually launched by a small catapult with a recovery net and it can be deployed from the land or from a ship’s deck. You will be amazed by its short deployment time of only 30 minutes and its ability to land on water. You can also find out which are the best civilian micro models, by reading our article about micro drones.
Class II (150-600 kg ): tactical
The tactical UAVs are specially designed to be used in the organic battalion level or in Special Forces as assets for purposes of medium range surveillance.
They have a vital role of filling the gap between the ranges of functions of the short-range micro-UAVs and the strategic UAVS, which comprise of the MALE and HALE. These drones achieve this by having a combination of flexibility, endurance as well as ruggedness.
They have been of use in situation analysis and awareness, to offer protection and surveillance besides being used in target acquisition and the assessment of some damage to a given force.
The most sophisticated tactical ISTAR system on the whole globe right now is the Watchkeeper which is developed by Thales. It is also the largest UAS programme in Europe. As a matter of fact the Watchkeeper platform is the only large UAV in Europe that is certified to fly in civilian airspace and this is inclusive of urban areas.
Class III (>600 kg): strategic
The Class III UAVs are usually referred to as Medium Altitude Long Endurance, MALE systems as well as High Altitude Long Endurance UAVs, HALEs. The MALEs are especially ideal for surveillance as well as reconnaissance on a non-threatening area.
They have a wide range of applications namely being used to determine the position of the enemy or the movement of certain populations that are not involved into a conflict. They have state of the art infrastructure and they have also been used to compile lists of targets.
Some renowned MALEs include the Reaper/Predator, and the family of drones called Anka and Heron just to name a few. One of the few HALEs available right now is the Global Hawk Family.
Classification based on functions
UAVs can also be classified based on the specific roles they are meant to play in particular military operations. Based on this we have the following UAVs:
- Target and decoy UAVs – these can be used to provide ground as well as aerial gunnery at a target which simulates an enemy missile or aircraft.
- Reconnaissance UAVs – these are used to provide intelligence at the battlefield.
- Combat UAVs – have been used to provide attack capability for some high-risk missions.
- Research and Development UAVs – have been used to further develop UAV technologies that can be integrated into UAVs that have been deployed in the field.
- Civil and Commercial UAVs – these are those that have been designed to be used in civil and commercial applications.
Classification based on autonomy of the UAVs
UAVs could also be classified based on their autonomy as more advanced ones are aiming for total autonomy. This classification will result in UAVs being grouped in different generations based on their autonomic capabilities. Most of the early UAVs were referred to as drones since they were not as sophisticated being a mere radio controlled aircraft.
They were controlled with the aid of a human pilot who is at times referred to as an operator. Some of the more sophisticated versions have in-built control and guidance systems to help them perform some low-level human pilot duties. Such duties are inclusive of speed and flight path stabilization as well as simply prescribed navigation functions just to name a few.
Based on this, most of the early UAVs cannot be considered to be autonomous due to their total reliance on human control. As a matter of fact, the field of autonomy is an emerging field in the UAS and their crucial role in helping the military have battlefield-ready technology should be entertained. This autonomy technology is seen as something that is hoped to be factored in the design of future military UAVs. The following classification exists for with UAVs that make use of autonomy technology:
- Sensor fusion – these UAVs combine information sourced from different sensors for use on board the vehicle.
- Communication UAVs – these help in the handling of communication and coordination between multiple agents in the presence of incomplete and imperfect information.
- Motion planning aka Path Planning – these UAVs help in the determination of an optimal path for vehicle to go in case it encounters certain obstacles.
- Trajectory generation UAVs – these UAVs have the ability to determine an optimal control maneuver to take to follow a given path or go to from a given location to another.
- Task allocation and scheduling – these UAVs have the ability to determine the optimal distribution of several tasks among a group of specified agents in the event that there are time and equipment constraints.
- Cooperative tactics UAVs – these have the ability to formulate an optimal sequence as well as a spatial distribution of some activities between various agents with the goal of optimizing or maximizing the chance of success for a particular mission.
The level of autonomy opens the possibility of independent UAVs that would be able to reason like a human being – a smart UAV. This can be comparable to the development of artificial intelligence systems as witnessed in the 1980s and the early 1990s in various fields. Autonomy is seen and is hoped to be the extension of the control field.
The ultimate goal of autonomy technology is to develop a system that will replace the human pilot. But progress in the development of this technology as well as its utility will be highly influenced by the political climate surrounding such events.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles continue to be applied in various military operations due to their high convenience in reducing the losses and enabling the execution of high profile missions.
Their origin can be traced back to the WWI when the United States and France had the idea of developing an aircraft that had no human pilot on board, to be used in warfare. Still, the first time they were used was during the Vietnam War.
UAVs are part of a large system that is referred to as an Unmanned Aircraft System, a term which encompasses the whole system with the ground control and sensors being factored in.
As you saw, there are several classes and the separation is based on weights, control range as well as endurance. Military UAVs can also be classified based on the kind of operations they perform: target and decoy, reconnaissance, those for use in combat as well as the ones for research and development.
The goal is to create a smart that will no longer require the human factor. However, for now, the technology did not get that far. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems have been predicted to play a vital role in the resolution of future conflicts and more advanced systems are being developed to that effect.