Will UAV Proliferation Create Unfriendly Skies for Other Aircraft?
The U.S. military already operates at least 1,500 UAVs, and that number is expected to quadruple by the end of this decade, according to the U.S. Navy League. Agencies like the US Department of Homeland Security are ordering their own UAVs, and the difficulty of coordinating UAVs and manned traffic is already causing a factor in Iraq, where at least one collision with a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter may have occurred. Meanwhile, Israeli researchers have figured out ways to incorporate flocking behavior and decision making into UAVs that improves upon individual UAV performance, and the US is investing in this area as well. In other words, not only will there be more UAVs, but more group/swarm UAV employment is also likely.
Can all this UAV traffic mingle safely with manned aircraft traffic, which is also expected to grow on the civilian side over the next decade?
Avionics Magazine looks at the issue, and notes that even Boeing and Airbus seem to agree on the solution: a technology called required navigation performance (RNP). As today’s field report article notes, however, a military solution will be at least as important if the full benefits of UAVs are to be realized on the battlefield.
USAF Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, commander of 9th Air Force and US Central Command Air Forces, discussed the 2004 Battle of Fallujah in the January 2006 issue of Air Force Magazine. He, too, is concerned about this issue:
“Here’s the problem we’re getting to: …I anecdotally understand we have over 1,000 UAVs on the ground, in the [area of responsibility], with the majority of those flying below 3,000 feet. That is a very thick environment. We have in fact had occasions where they have run into helicopters. Fortunately, to my knowledge, we have not hurt anybody yet. We have damaged airplanes and knocked them down, but we’ve not injured anybody. …My fear is, the day will come where we will have a C-130 full of troops and …a Scan Eagle, a Shadow, a Pioneer, whatever, is going to come through the cockpit and take out a C-130 because we did not deconflict. …Above 3,000 feet, we deconflict via altitude. I deconflict via space. I deconflict via time. …But folks have got to play by those rules, and I will tell you not everybody who’s flying UAVs in the AOR is a rated pilot that understands that, and that deconfliction piece.”