Drone Pilot JobsDrone Aircraft: How the Drones Got Their Stingers

July 30, 2021by helo-10
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Sky Eyes:
U.S. Army operators in Iraq prepare a Shadow for catapault launch (top); a soldier heaves a Raven into the air from the perimeter of a U.S. Marine base in Afghanistan (bottom left); and an airman at Creech Air Force Base checks over a Predator before flight (bottom right).

Clockwise From Top: U.S. Army; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; John Moore/Getty Images

Pilotless aircraft began as preprogrammed drones, evolved into remotely piloted vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and are now sometimes called unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), in appreciation of the aircraft’s role within a larger collection of complex equipment.

They’re most commonly used for reconnaissance or sustained surveillance. But many UAVs are equipped with lasers that can illuminate a target or even mark it for automatic destruction, using laser-guided weapons launched from other platforms. And some of the larger UAVs carry missiles themselves. At the small end of the spectrum are UAVs that a single soldier can carry around and launch by hand. AeroVironment, a company headquartered in Monrovia, Calif., manufactures some of the better-known examples, including the Raven, which is fundamentally similar to the radio-controlled planes that hobbyists fly for fun, although it’s much tougher and packs more sophisticated electronic gear.

So, clearly, the wherewithal to construct a small UAV has been around for a long time. Why then has the use of Ravens and other hand-launched UAVs burgeoned only in the last decade?

“The technology definitely matured,” says Gabriel Torres, an aeronautical engineer and project manager at AeroVironment. He notes that the Pointer, the 1990s-era predecessor of the Raven, used nickel-cadmium batteries and could remain aloft for only 30 minutes, one-third as long as the lithium ion–powered Raven can. The Pointer’s support equipment was also awkwardly bulky for a soldier to carry around. “The ground-control station was like an 80-pound box,” says Torres. The craft was also limited by its rudimentary autopilot, which initially relied on an electromechanical compass. “But little by little, the technology improved,” says Torres.

Strides in the fabrication of microelectromechanical systems, for example, allowed tiny gyroscopes, accelerometers, and airspeed sensors to be added to the smallest of these vehicles, along with increasingly compact and reliable GPS receivers. “The other thing that changed,” says Torres, “was an appreciation of the kind of mission that could be fulfilled with this type of system.” With the Raven, he explains, U.S. military planners were able to work out detailed tactics, techniques, and procedures for soldiers to use small aerial vehicles in combat. “This all became very important in 2000 and 2001,” he says.

This period was also a turning point for larger UAVs, in part because of advances in computers and radio links. The more important reason to call 2001 a watershed year, however, is that it marked the very first time anyone put weapons on a reusable unmanned aircraft.

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