Deadly Drone RoboCops

        Drones are becoming the preferred way for the military to police the battle field and track down, and even kill, wanted terrorists. These remotely controlled aircraft are becoming increasingly sophisticated, developing into Drone Robocops that watch, report, and attack from above.

        As is often the case with modern technology, the inspiration for our modern winged marvels comes from books and film. The minds of many will instantly go to the menacing Hunter-Killer craft featured in the Terminator franchise. Certainly, we are not there yet but somewhat more modest stories such as the Dale Brown novel, Day of the Cheetah, and the little-known film Stealth, both of which feature unmanned aircraft that go rogue are becoming more real with each passing year. At last, the visions long marketed in the pages of Popular Mechanics in which remote-controlled or even fully autonomous drones take the place of manned fighter jets is within reach. 

There are many reasons that militaries around the world are rushing to build these highly advanced Drone Robocops. These include:

  • Human life – By replacing a human pilot in the cockpit with an operator in a remotely located control room those pilot’s lives are no longer at risk.
  • Range/time on station – With no need to carry and protect a pilot, the drones are able to fly longer and carry more weapons and fuel. While a fighter jet can stay aloft for approximately two hours, a Predator drone can circle above the field of battle for over 24 hours.
  • Ease of training – Teaching someone how pilot a fighter is a grueling process, taking thousands of dollars and many years. In the case of drones, they are so easy to operate that the Air Force is essentially taking people off the street and teaching them how to be drone pilots.
  • Cost – While not cheap, drones are considerably less expensive than the average price of a fighter jet.
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        Drones come in various shapes and sizes. As of this writing they range in size from three feet (Raven tactical surveillance drone) to 130 feet (the high altitude Global Hawk). While most look very much like the basic shape of many planes, others are helicopters or even arrowheads like the stealthy Sentinel.     

        Drones have become useful in many different fields. Being able to stay aloft for significant periods of time makes them ideal for surveillance purposes in foreign and domestic applications.

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As we have mentioned previously, drones are commonly used in a surveillance capacity on the battlefield and in a hunter-killer capacity, attacking terrorists without risk to military personnel. They also have proven useful in search and rescue operations, looking for missing soldiers and downed aircraft.

Surveillance capabilities differ depending on the drone and application. The Raven is ideal for gathering intelligence on enemy emplacements over the next hill or in a neighborhood, while the Reaper, Sentinel, and the much larger Global Hawk provide a big picture overview of large areas, keeping track of large scale troop movements and looking for suspicious activity across the field of engagement.

Future uses will include air-refueling drones, air-to-air combat drones and even electronic warfare support.

Many countries have entered the world of weaponized drones. They now include the United States, China, Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, Russia, Britain and others. Even Nigeria has begun to make use of Drone Robocops against terrorists group Boko Haram. Part of the reason for the extensive proliferation of Drone Robocops is the relative availability and affordability of Chinese technology, specifically its CH-3/4 drones. These are the most used drones outside of the United States and are only a fraction of the cost of the MQ-9 Reaper. It is worth noting that the CH-4 in particular is very similar in appearance to the Reaper. Its capabilities include optical and infrared sensors and the ability to launch laser and GPS guided missiles.

The militaries of the world, not just China and America are going to continue developing drone technology, building ever-more sophisticated Drone Robocops in the years to come.Let us discuss some of the most sophisticated and deadly Drone RoboCops.

MQ-9 Reaper

        The Reaper developed by  General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in USA, is the direct successor to the famous Predator drone and reflects the way in which use of the older craft has evolved. In the beginning years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Predator was used primarily for surveillance and intelligence gathering. As time went on, the military began outfitting them with weapons such as the tank-busting Hellfire missile. They were so successful in their hunter-killer role that this became the primary purpose of the Reaper.

        This shift in mission focus and many advances in technology have given this new unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) far greater capabilities than its predecessor. In addition to flying at three times the speed of the Predator, the Reaper can carry 15 times the weapon payload. It can operate either under direct control or autonomously for surveillance purposes. Designed to circle overhead at high-altitudes for long periods of time, the Reaper is able get on station quickly, remain there out of sight for very long periods and rainn destruction on its targets.

        So successful is the Reaper that it is even beginning to take the place of manned aircraft. In 2008 Amercian Air National Guard 17th Attack Wing gave up its aging F-16 Falcons for the new, unmanned weapon system, becoming the first unit to make the transition.

MQ Reaper Drone
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Predator C – Avenger

        The Avenger is another direct descendent of the Predator. Unlike its slightly older sister the Reaper, it places a premium on stealth. Designed with flowing lines that remind one of the B-2 Bomber and internal weapons storage, the drone is nearly invisible to radar. It also has a specially shaped exhaust port and top-mounted turbofan engine that renders it nearly invisible to infrared as well.

Predator C Avenger
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        It hasn’t been adopted as enthusiastically as the Reaper however, as the gains in speed and stealth have been deemed insufficient to justify having both drones on the roster. However, the U.S. Navy has explored variations on the Avenger. These include an unmanned refueling tanker called the Stingray, which would primarily support the Navy’s F-18 Hornets.

        Another is the Sea Avenger, designed for use aboard aircraft carriers. It features dramatically increased fuel capacity, folding wings for storage, and of course a tail-hook for landing on the carrier deck.

        Finally, there is the Avenger ER, an extended range version of the Avenger. It is larger than the base model, can carry over 10,000lbs of fuel (as opposed to just under 8000) and only 500lbs less in ordinance.

Boeing X-45A UCAV

        It would of course be a mistake to assume that the military’s Drone Robocops would continue to be simply derivative of its earliest and most successful model. Recognizing the need to explore new technologies, DARPA(an agency of the United States Department of Defence) commissioned Boeing to develop the X-45A.

        This proof of concept unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) was meant to test technologies for the next generation of military drones. Designed to still rely on human controllers for significant decisions, the X-45 truly takes the drone concept to the next level in that its flying is entirely autonomous.

        A test in 2005 demonstrated the extent of its artificial intelligence (AI). Two aircraft took off in a patrol formation and detected a simulated anti-aircraft emplacement. The drones then communicated with each other to determine which of them was better equipped to attack the target (based of course on simulated weapons). Another target then emerged and was destroyed by the other drone. While the authorization to attack came from a ground-based controller, all other decisions were made exclusively by the drones.

        The X-45 and its variants were designed to be air-to-ground weapons platforms only, though they were equipped with defensive capabilities for air-to-air engagements. Given the capabilities of the X-45, there is no doubt that we will soon learn of successful air-to-air tests by US military drones.

Boeeng X-45A
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BAE Taranis

         As it happens, the British are already testing drones capable of attacking airborne targets. The BAE Systems Taranis first took flight in 2013. Named after the Celtic god of thunder, Taranis is designed to carry out long range missions to attack nearly any target. Information on the Taranis is scant, though it is clear that it is part of Britain’s long-term military strategy. Currently, it is expected that the drone will operate in conjunction with manned aircraft, though given the rate at which the technology is progressing, that roll could easily expand in the coming years. 

BAE Taranis
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        Although the UCAV is not expected to enter field service in the near future, its development continues apace and its goals are sufficiently ambitious that the Future Combat Air System will be worth the wait. With a projected top speed above Mach 1, a fuel capacity large enough to enable intercontinental missions, significant autonomous capabilities, and internal weapons storage, and other stealth technologies the Taranis will be at least the equal of any other unmanned (and several manned) weapons platforms when it finally does enter service.

        Drone technology has long been a dream of military strategists. Beginning as hard to detect spies providing intelligence on the battlefield, these technological sentinels in the sky have taken on a central role in many regional wars and in the fight against global terrorism. For years now, drones have been not only monitoring but attacking targets on the ground. The technology continues to advance and already, drones are becoming more autonomous and deadly. It is possible that within the next two decades, we will see the advent of drones that are fully capable of monitoring a target in order to plan and execute a strike on their own, with humans relegated to a supervisory role.

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