Pizza delivery by UAV? Your Amazon book order by remote control? The opportunities for unmanned systems have never been greater. As delegates to the annual Unmanned System Canada (USC) conference in November heard, resource sectors, the film industry and security and emergency response organizations are all exploring new applications for platforms of all shapes and sizes, in the air, on the ground and underwater.

Unmanned systems have proven indispensable for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), which is still analyzing options for the acquisition of a long range aerial system to serve its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance needs for domestic and expeditionary operations, a program known as the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS).

John Porter, a former U.S. Navy pilot, serves as deputy director of international business development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, one of the companies eagerly watching the progress of the Royal Canadian Air Force as it assess requirements. While he admits some frustration with the pace of the project, he has been an active participant in the government’s recent requests for information. Based on the CAF need for both speed and endurance, he believes a combination of the company’s Predator B (or MQ-9 Reaper), which has demonstrated 42 hours endurance, and newer Predator C Avenger, which has topped 400 knots, could provide the ideal solution.

Prior to presenting at USC in Vancouver, he spoke with Vanguard about the technology and the trends.


We have heard about some remarkable uses for unmanned systems in the past two days. Where do you see the trends pointing?

On the platform side, I don’t see a lot changing; the innovation is really now around sensors. So I think we’ll continue to see the integration of payloads. For example, we have done a couple of demonstrations for the U.S. Marine Corps recently with a jamming pod, and there is also a lot on electronic surveillance that can be done.

The Department of Homeland Security has effectively used them for disaster assistance. NASA has employed them for forest fire management, with a special sensor that produces imagery draped over a Google 3D map and colour coded by the temperature variations in the fire itself, so you can track a hot spot and pass that imagery to the firefighter on the ground.

We’ve looked at search and rescue. For years people said you can be pretty good at search, but now we can support the rescue effort as well though a Joint Precision Airdrop System, a GPS-guided parasail, that could deliver kit right to a survivor.

We’re going to need to have more access to national airspace to get into the more commercial uses, but there is a wide way range of things that can be done.

What’s the most critical sensor capability yet to come?

The one we are really looking forward to is sense and avoid capability which will satisfy FAA and Transport Canada. That is the game changer.

Where are military customers looking for the breakthroughs?

Whatever they envision, if there is a sensor capable of doing that, we can deliver. There is a business unit of our company developing laser weapons; it is currently a little bit too large to be employed on a UAV, but the unit is part of our company, so the effort is to reduce the size, and that will be significant.

Most UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) are still demonstration projects, but it’s been suggested by Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute and others that we might be overlooking their true potential as we consider the next generation manned fighter.

Affordable quantities count. You could probably get a dozen Avengers for a single F-35. Maybe you go into a hostile environment and you lose a few of them, but the others get the mission done and it hasn’t cost you an arm and a leg. Military guys really need to do an analysis of where they might go to war and determine what is needed to do that.

Are you being asked to address the data management challenge and the large human footprint in analysis?

Data management is a big issue. We have systems that assist with that, that allow you to archive the data that you have received and then retrieve it based on a location and a time, for example. You can then focus on specifics rather than the broad picture. But it is still people-intensive and it will be for some time, because I don’t see any time soon where you can automate what people are doing when they are assessing the data.

Beyond SATCOM, are there challenges related to UAV operations in the Arctic?

No more than any other airplane. All of the avionics and electronics in the airplane are tested from very low to very high temperatures. We know those will work reliably in that environment. So the biggest challenge for the Arctic is communications. With the existing satellites, we can get to 72-73 degrees North. Right now the bandwidth will give us command and control, it will give us voice communications, but it won’t give us the full data stream. But there are new satellites coming out that will have more bandwidth and will allow us to operate a more normal mission all the way up to the Pole.

Are there any misperceptions about the systems?

The media has unfortunately coined and proliferated the term drone. We hate it. I think it gives the public the wrong perception. There are a lot of people who think these aircraft are launched by themselves, go up, find things and kill them, and that is not the case. There is a human involved. It is so much more effective than in my days as a fighter pilot trying to employ a weapon. I had very little time on the target area – I was going fast, and to find a target, try and identify it, and hit it with an iron bomb required skill on my part. They can now spend hours or even days making absolutely sure they have the right target, picking a time to attack that target when collateral damage will be minimized, and then deploying a precision weapon that is going to hit it precisely.