But if remotely piloted aircraft have made themselves irreplaceable, they also can’t stop evolving.
One reason is that not every combat environment will be as friendly as the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. and allied aircraft enjoyed supremacy. For another, the jobs that commanders need done grow more complex by the year.
The good news is that GA-ASI is keeping ahead of those needs. Our newest technologies enable capabilities that no remotely piloted aircraft ever had before. They’re joining the hunt for hostile submarines under the ocean’s surface and releasing defensive countermeasures to protect themselves from enemy fire, just like a human-crewed fighter.
The MQ-9B SkyGuardian and variants also can integrate into a nation’s civil airspace in a way no remotely operated aircraft ever could before, vastly improving the way users can add these aircraft to their surveillance or other operations. The ability to fly the MQ-9B in and among normal British air traffic was one reason why it was selected to be the new platform of choice by the Royal Air Force: The Protector.
Our remotely piloted aircraft can even accommodate their own, small unmanned aerial systems, often known simply as SUAS. If the past 20 years has brought the golden age of large UAS, the coming 20 years will represent the evolution of their little brothers.
For example, GA-ASI has developed one game-changing SUAS known as Sparrowhawk, which an aircraft such as the MQ-9 can carry under its wing as it might a traditional payload like a sensor pod or a fuel tank. But when the MQ-9 reaches an area of interest on a mission, it can do something few remotely operated aircraft have ever done – launch the smaller UAS and then recover it in mid-flight.
The smaller, nimbler, swifter Sparrowhawk is difficult for an adversary to spot as it sprints low along its route. It does, via connection to its big brother, what remotely operated aircraft have been doing all along: Sends back vital information about what’s taking place, without the cost and risk of involving a human aircrew.
The Sparrowhawk might surveil an area and turn back to rendezvous with the aircraft that launched it. In a safe area, well away from hostile warplanes or anti-air systems, the larger UAS can snatch the Sparrowhawk out of the sky and continue its mission.
Once Sparrowhawk is secure, the larger aircraft can return to base – or, relying on its ability to stay aloft for many hours, continue its patrol and even launch another Sparrowhawk elsewhere later from its other wing station.
Integrating smaller aircraft with larger unmanned aircraft is possible in part thanks to advances in autonomy and multi-aircraft control pioneered by GA-ASI. As ever, the absence of human pilots on these aircraft means commanders can consider using them in ways they would never employ traditional fighters.
A SkyGuardian could release a Sparrowhawk with the intention of searching for hostile anti-air systems without needing to worry about the safety of the pilot. Indeed, an air commander’s goal might be to send Sparrowhawk to probe a denied environment so that it could report back about the radar or other systems that powered on or detected it – where they were, what type, and how many.
Sparrowhawk could respond with an electronic attack of its own to clear the way for other aircraft coming in behind it, jamming an enemy radar to deny its ability to sense a strike package passing through the area. Or the small aircraft could support missions focused on the suppression of enemy air defenses.
Small UAS will take the concept of unmanned aerial combat to new levels, with new capabilities like our Sparrowhawk and others leading the way in distributed aerial networking and joint, all-domain command and control. But SUAS won’t only help friendly forces deal with threats on the ground.
Another small system in the works by GA-ASI will help clear the way through the skies. LongShot, being developed under a contract from DARPA, will launch from larger UAS or human-crewed aircraft and charge into hostile airspace armed with its own air-to-air missiles, able to fire on enemy targets if it were so commanded.
LongShot gives commanders options, just as all remotely operated systems always have. It could initiate a fighter sweep ahead of a strike wave without putting a human crew in danger, or it could join an attack alongside the vanguard with human-crewed warplanes.
LongShot also could give legacy aircraft such as bombers a potent new anti-air capability. Imagine if a friendly bomber were en route during a combat mission and allied battle networks detected the approach of hostile fighters. LongShot would let the bomber crew go on offense against the threat without the need for its own escorts or the retasking of friendly fighters, preserving its ability to service its targets as planned.
Airpower, naval and ground warfighters doubtlessly will find other new ways to incorporate these new systems into their missions, as troops always have with novel weapons that give them more options and flexibility.
Those pilots, air crews, squadrons and other units are the latest links in a chain that goes back decades. From unpowered contraptions of wood and fabric to sophisticated warplanes that can launch and recover their own smaller squadrons, remotely piloted aircraft have made incredible progress since the days of William Eddy and his camera kites. And with stealthier and advanced new programs in the works, including some in support of the Air Force’s MQ-Next concept, there’s a great deal more to come.
What won’t change is their utility and indispensability from today’s and tomorrow’s military, security, governance and environmental protection operations, with an ever-growing suite of missions beyond those for which they were originally designed.
That, too, is something Eddy himself discovered following his return to New Jersey, when he found that thieves had stolen a batch of ice cream from his back porch.
As one local history records, Eddy reeled out his aerial surveillance kite and captured some images of the area: «One shot showed two men eating ice cream under a tree near Newark Bay. Eddy said he later found his ice cream box under the tree».