The USAF has deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has more lethality and speed, able to fly 260 knots at FL500. Available options on the MQ-9 “Reaper” include infrared, laser and radar targeting, and your choice of of guided bombs and missiles up to 3,000 pounds. MP3 player not yet available.
A good reason to “Fear the Reaper”. (Apologies to Blue Oyster Cult). It looks plenty tough.
The USAF transition from surveillance to attack is a significant change. Initially, recon was the primary role of the MQ-1 Predator over Iraq. Later they were outfitted with two Hellfire missiles. The Reaper signals a new chapter in Close Air Support as long as air supremacy exists.
The Reaper is four times heavier than the Predator and comparable to the profile of the Air Force A-10. -Less expensive and can do some things manned aircraft cannot. Some see it as the “75% solution”: It accomplishes most of the mission profile in counter insurgency at less expense. A predator is $7.6M; Reaper at $17M (both with ground control stations), compared to tactical aircraft, such as the F-35 , which may top out at over $100M. I have concerns about close air support with a guy dropping weapons having a soda straw view of the battlefield 7,000 miles away. Still, they have great loiter times, are less complex and not subject to G-LOC – loss of consciousness in high performance maneuvers. It takes over a year and $2.5 million to train a fighter pilot. UAV pilots are a fraction of the time and cost: 20 weeks and $135,000.
It stetches the imagination to think of future battles relegated to UAV pilots thousands of miles from each other locked in a video game war: “My drone can beat up on your drone”. It could happen and frankly, I hate to see it.
Which brings me to general aviation. There are UAV’s already in use in law enforcement and border patrol. Some are quite small . Many are pushing for more civilian applications along with a growing list of hobbyists who want to expand the reaches of RC flying so they can have a drone of their own. Exisiting FAA policies currently prevent most UAV’s from flying in national airspace because the agency hasn’t developed procedures for approving them.
The agency is also hesitant to write regulations because it wants to ensure unmanned systems are noticeable to larger manned aircraft. Aerial drones are difficult to see and therefore must have the capability to detect, sense and avoid other aircraft, Duquette says. However, FAA asserts that this technology is “years away.”
How many other applications in the future? Air traffic, firefighting, aerial photography, crop dusting, search and rescue? Is an unmanned commercial carrier in the cards? I know what you’re thinking: Too much time watching movies like iRobot. However, we already have CAT III systems (in the 757 and others) that are able to “self land” and required to do this monthly. It might be the domain of “Popular Science” musings but begs the question: What’s next?