Unmanned (uninhabited if you are gender-sensitive) aerial vehicles (UAVs) clearly have a burgeoning future in Canada and around the world. But what types and in what roles are questions that are yet to be decided. This article explores the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of the various options.

A quick word about terminology at the outset. Drones and UAVs are the most common words for this class of vehicles, but they may also be known as robots, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), remotely operated aircraft (ROAs), or in the case of platforms for aerial combat, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). It should also be noted that the vehicle itself is only a small part of a rather complex system that delivers the capability. Thus some authors will refer to unmanned aerial systems (UAS). I will stick with the term UAV.

Why the move to this new technology? Actually, the idea has been around for almost as long as airplanes have been flying. But recent advances in miniaturization, digitization, satellite navigation and software have made UAVs more effective and appealing. To some they avoid exposing pilots to hazardous conditions and duties; to others they can accomplish repetitive tasks reliably and without fatigue or loss of concentration; to yet others they appear to offer vastly improved performance over the piloted aircraft. Many see UAVs as specially suited for roles that are dull, dirty or dangerous.

As far as military models go, UAVs tend to be smaller in size than their manned analog with a reduced signature for visual, radar, and other sensors. They can be smaller and lighter since they do not have to cater to having a pilot or crew aboard, and they can manoeuvre without worry of human limitations.

Yet as small as the vehicle may be, the system required to support it is quite extensive: communications both to control the vehicle and to receive down-linked data; the ground station which provides the needed direction and control as well as data reception; payload configuration and support; navigation systems; launch and recovery systems; and ground maintenance support including resupply of fuel and consumables. Without this extended system the vehicle will have no real capability.

The vehicles themselves vary in size from extremely small, perhaps the size of a small bird, all the way to the size of a modest airliner. Their range and endurance also vary to a similar degree. The smaller versions can be launched by hand or small slings and they can be recovered through parachutes or entrapment devices. On the other hand the larger ones take-off and land on quite conventional runways and are therefore limited by access to such infrastructure.

A further model of UAV, in fact one of which has been successfully designed in Canada by Canadair in the 1980s (the CL-227 Peanut), is one powered by rotary wings rather like manned helicopters. These can launch and recover in a vertical manner and are therefore much more flexible in employment, easily adapted to shipborne deployment as well as in forward field locations in support of army commanders. Their range, payload and endurance are naturally limited, much like their piloted equivalent, but their responsiveness and flexibility are impressive.

Communications represent a major challenge in developing UAV capability. Extensive two-way communication is vital to the ongoing control and to downloading the sensors’ data streams. In practice this means line-of-sight radio connections, which means close proximity to a ground antenna or satellite communications from above. In either case access to sufficient bandwidth to accommodate these needs will be a considerable concern, as will ensuring the continuity and reliability of these communications. Decoying, intercepting and jamming these signals will represent a significant threat, even if it is just from hobby hackers.

A very interesting parameter of UAV design is the degree of automation and autonomy afforded to the vehicle. While the words are similar, the concepts are very different. Automation refers to programmed activity which can be foreseen and planned but then executed by computer-directed devices; automation of the required processes can be accomplished both on the UAV and in the ground station. Autonomy, on the other hand, refers to the degree of human direction exercised in the system. In military applications involving delivery of weapons, full human control of the targeting decisions is axiomatic. Where weapons are not involved, in surveillance, for example, much more autonomy can be envisioned.

Major fixed wing UAVs are classified by their operating altitudes and endurance. Those able to operate above 50,000 feet over periods of up to 36 hours are called High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE). The U.S. Global Hawk is the prime exemplar of this class; its main role is surveillance, as it can cover wide areas over long periods. Weapons are unlikely to be employed from such altitudes due to inaccuracies from such distances. At somewhat lower altitudes we have Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs, generally powered by propeller. Altitudes are up to 25,000 feet and endurance about 24 hours; the best-known example in this class is the Predator or its armed variant, the Reaper, which have been widely used in recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Most recently Canada has employed the Israeli-designed MALE Heron UAV to support ground commanders in Afghanistan. At shorter ranges and lower altitudes there is a much greater variety of UAVs, such as Desert Hawk, a hand-launched UAV designed to assist the tactical commander to see over the next hill and to patrol his close-in area of interest.

A major challenge for UAVs is to demonstrate the required levels of reliability for safety of flight in relation to other users of the airspace. Up until now civilian UAV flights have been authorized by the Canadian Ministry of Transport on an individual basis through the issue of a Special Flight Operation Certificate. Separation of flight has been handled either through a piloted chase aircraft or through segregation of designated airspace. Military flights have largely taken place either in a combat zone or in specially reserved airspace. But the full integration of UAVs into routine airspace use has not yet occurred. In the United States, Congress has mandated the Federal Aviation Authority to develop the required regulatory framework by 2015. Much work is required to devise the standards and process to certify both the operator and the vehicles, much as is done for piloted flight.

Potential roles for UAVs are as varied as human imagination permits. Clearly the most promising roles are related to surveillance. Depending on operating altitude there is a trade-off between resolution and the extent of coverage. At higher altitudes, potential coverage is wider and generally the platform’s endurance is longer, affording either persistent attention on a particular target, or coverage of a much wider area. At lower altitudes very precise resolution is more easily available, giving greater detail and establishing patterns of activity that may be required to confirm legitimate targets. Potential sensors include optical, radar, electro-optical, radio, laser, infrared and atmospheric sampling. The Canadian government has been exploring systems based on HALE models, such as Global Hawk, for applications in our high north, where the need is urgent and the potential for aerospace conflicts is much lower.

While it seems attractive to arm those surveillance platforms that operate in lower altitudes (like the Predator), where weapons could be delivered based on the derived targeting information, I am skeptical that Canada will invest much in this type of capability. It is not a needed capability for domestic defence in Canada and is probably only “nice to have” for our deployed operations. In any event, when we deploy we will do so as part of a coalition, some of whom (especially the U.S.) will have that capability. We have long had the theoretical capacity to procure cruise missiles and have declined to do so. I do not currently see a change of heart in this regard.

Lastly, I would observe that the possibility of success in UCAV applications in air-to-air combat seems very remote at present. Ultimately, effectiveness in this realm will require artificial intelligence at a level as yet unknown. Air combat is a personal and creative activity where predictability is a route to certain defeat. Including a remote operator suggests delays that will also inhibit success. This is an elusive goal that will take decades to develop, in my judgement.

It is clearly an exciting and challenging future for UAVs and we will watch with great interest just how it all develops.

Major-General Fraser Holman is a former RCAF fighter pilot who flew both the CF-18 Hornet and CF-104 Starfighter over a 35-year career. He has served as a mentor for several senior programmes over 14 years at the Canadian Forces College, where he is the Honorary Colonel. He is a member of the Strategic Studies Working Group (SSWG) of the Canadian International Council. This article is adapted from a paper, The Future of Drones in Canada, for the CIC (http://opencanada.org).