Limitations on UAV use are imposed by the threat of collisions between UAVs and manned aircraft. An RQ-7 Shadow UAV is definitely large enough to create real problems if it hits a helicopter or other aircraft, and a UAV’s extremely narrow field of view is a lot less safe than the awareness available to a human in a cockpit. Worse, many UAVs are small enough that a potential collision may not be noticed by other aircraft until it’s too late. There have already been accidents.
This isn’t just a military problem. It also represents the largest barrier to widespread civil UAV use. Europe’s EDA has a program underway to address deconfliction, the Israelis are looking into it, the US military is funding research from multiple UAV controllers to SWARMs, and even private contractors are busy searching for the key that will unlock a vast UAV market. The ultimate goal is a system that’s small enough to equip smaller and more affordable tactical and civil UAVs, as well as larger and more expensive military UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk.
A recent project sponsored by the US Army, and led by Lockheed Martin, is bringing that goal closer – and may have ramifications for the inter-service balance of power.