Army exploring remote unmanned aircraft operations

The Air Force is helping the Army test an unmanned aircraft that can be flown locally but controlled by a pilot thousands of miles away.

If such an operation sounds familiar, it is - the Air Force perfected it a while back with its Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft but the Army has had no such program and its operators must be in close proximity to the airplane. In the Air Force's case, the unmanned planes are launched locally, in this case Iraq and Afghanistan, but are controlled by a pilot and sensor operator sitting at computer consoles in a ground station in Nevada's Creech Air Force Base.

According to the Air Force Times, the Air Force will conduct of demonstration of the concept - called remote split operations - with the Army's Shadow unmanned aircraft in the next few months. The ground control station for the demonstration will be at Fort Belvoir, Va., and the aircraft will be flown at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. Remote split operations require the UAV to be able to link up with a satellite.

While the test involves a Shadow, it is the Army's future unmanned aircraft that could see remote operations. The Army is currently expects to buy some 130 Sky Warriors -- about half of the unmanned aircraft will have satellite linking capability, according to the Times article. This raises the possibility that the Army could fly its Warriors remotely rather than locally. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems makes the Sky Warrior and the Predator/Reaper aircraft as well.

The Sky Warrior features a 56ft wingspan, can fly at 29,000ft for over 30 hours toting 4 Hellfire missiles. The Predator is slightly smaller with a 55ft wingspan. It operates in the 25,000ft range for about the same time as the Sky Warrior but it can hold 2 Hellfires.

Ironically such cooperation is coming at a time when the services aren't working together to establish a unified way to control unmanned aircraft traffic.

According to a Times article , on May 9, the House Armed Services Committee is expected to weigh in on the issue. The problem centers on a request by Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England for the Air Force to become the executive agent for UAVs that operate at medium and high altitude. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps oppose the move.

The need for better air traffic control of UAVs will be driven by the phenomenal growth of the UAV. For example, researchers at the Teal Group said in their 2008 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV spending of $3.4 billion annually to $7.3 billion, totaling close to $55 billion in the next ten years.

At the end of 2007, the four chiefs of service aviation and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) branches told the Army Aviation Association of America's unmanned said that the military should crystallize combat air control regarding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while domestic authorities must work out access and use of UAVs in domestic airspace.

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