Edwards Air Force Base will play host to several next generation UAVs over the next few weeks. These new drones are faster, fly higher, and employ stealth technologies.
One of the new aircraft, the Global Observer from AeroVironment Inc., has a wingspan similar to a Boeing 747 has already flown. It is able to fly for multiple days at altitudes of more than 65,000 feet. Operating at such altitudes, similar to those at which the venerable U2 spy plane operates, the Global Observer is out of the range of most antiaircraft missiles. It is capable of monitoring, in a single shot, an area of more than 275,000 square miles. When you consider that the entire country of Afghanistan only covers about 252,000 square miles, the Global Observer certainly lives up to its name allowing the Pentagon to constantly monitor entire war zones. At an estimated cost of $30 million dollars, it costs less and is more effective than spy satellites.
Northrop Grumman Corp., one of the big names in military aircraft, has brought their X-47B, which looks like their B-2 stealth bomber, to the table. Northrop Grumman’s next generation UAV has a large weapons bay that can carry laser-guided bombs and has aircraft carrier launch capabilities. Boeing, another big name manufacturer will also test their next generation UAV, the Phantom Ray which is designed to slip into enemy territory and destroy radar installations or other targets.
Current drones, like Predators or Reapers, have become very common in our current military engagements, but the new aircraft being tested at Edwards Air Force Base offer major technological improvements that will change the way the U.S. military uses UAVs. The most notable of those improvements are jet engines and stealth capabilities. Currently UAVs are not the fastest or stealthiest aircraft in the sky, so they don’t see much duty beyond surveillance support and aerial reconnaissance. With the newer more capable drones, like the X-47B and Phantom Ray, military personnel can deploy them for combat duties where stealth and speed are required to avoid detection, an area previously dominated by the current and next generation fighter jets, like the F-22 or F-35.
The largest part of what makes UAVs so attractive to the military are the reduced risk and cost of operating UAVs compared to other aircraft; however, the unique capabilities of drones like the new Global Observer don’t go unnoticed. While current UAVs can stay aloft for more than a day, next generation drones are edging toward staying up for more than a week, greatly improving the military’s reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities.
Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, or UCAVs, are currently operated as remotely piloted aircraft that require a pilot to control the aircraft. Next generation UCAVs, like the X-47B, only require a pilot to design a detailed flight plan; the on-board computers guide it from takeoff to landing.
While these aircraft aren’t likely to see service in the next few years, they offer a glimpse of the innovations that are happening within the industry. As is often the case, similar technologies will eventually reach the civilian sector allowing UAVs to take over even more functions requiring more and more qualified, civilian UAV pilots.