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Don’t Just Call Them ‘Drones’: A Layperson’s Guide To Military Unmanned Systems On Air, Land And Sea – Forbes

Posted by Categories: Computer Repair LKN, Home Page

PORTLAND, Ore. (Apr. 7, 2016) Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned ocean-going vessel gets … [+] underway on the Willamette River following a christening ceremony in Portland, Ore. Part the of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program, in conjunction with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is working to fully test the capabilities of the vessel and several innovative payloads, with the goal of transitioning the technology to Navy operational use once fully proven.

John F. Williams/Released

Unmanned systems are rapidly transforming the ways wars are fought across the globe—whether hi-tech stealth drones operated by the U.S. military or cheap commercial quadcopter modified by rebels in Syria to carry improvised bombs. 

Drone warfare reached a new milestone in the fall of 2019 when Turkish- and Chinese-built drones operated by both factions in Libya’s civil war largely replaced manned aircraft in combat roles, and were used to attack each other’s bases.

However, the blanket term ‘drones’ applies to a bewildering variety of system that differ radically in form, capability and cost. It also can be applied to unmanned ground vehicles and ships. Naturally, each type comes with its own opaque military acronyms.

In this article, we’ll take a quick look at the major categories of unmanned systems and the terminology that’s used to distinguish between them.

UAV:  Unmanned Aerial Vehicle—any flying drone. It’s that broad a term.

However, the term UAV is most often used to describe unarmed drones typically performing reconnaissance and surveillance missions–serving as “eyes in the sky.”

Example: Israel’s Elbit Hermes 450 is a short-range surveillance drone with a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour, and endurance for up to 20 hours in the air.

Drones in Afghanistan

A Hermes 450 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), which is a remotely controlled reconnaissance aircraft, … [+] takes off from Camp Bastion airfield, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images)

PA Images via Getty Images

UCAV: Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle—a UAV that can carry weapons to perform air strikes. Only a handful of countries produce UCAVs and their relatively light-weight precision-guided bombs and missiles.

Example: China’s CAIG Wing Loong (“Pterodactyl”) -1 and -2 drones have been widely exported across Africa and the Middle East and used in both surveillance and strike roles.

China International Aviation & Airshow - Day 2

ZHUHAI, CHINA – NOVEMBER 02: Unmanned aerial vehicle Wing Loong is on display during the 11th China … [+] International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition at Zhuhai Airshow Center on November 2, 2016 in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province of China. More than 700 exhibitors and 135 aircraft from 42 countries and regions will make demonstrations at the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition (Airshow China 2016) from November 1 to 6 in Zhuhai. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

Visual China Group via Getty Images

UAS:   Unmanned Aerial System—a complete UAV ‘package’, including ground-based terminals and control stations, remote video terminals and other logistical equipment needed to use the drone operationally. Each UAS typically includes multiple UAVs and control units.

Example: The MQ-9 Reaper is the primary UCAV used by the U.S. military and CIA. Able to remain aloft over 40 hours with a light payload and fly as far as 1,200 miles, the Reaper can also be loaded down with over 4,500 pounds of weapons on six hardpoints. A complete MQ-9 UAS includes four drones as well as several ground-based operating stations at a total cost of $64 million.

Air Force Works To Meet Increased Demand For Remotely Piloted Aircraft

INDIAN SPRINGS, NV – NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior … [+] to transmission.) An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on November 17, 2015 in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Pentagon has plans to expand combat air patrols flights by remotely piloted aircraft by as much as 50 percent over the next few years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Reaper Aircraft Flies Without Pilot From Creech AFB

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV – AUGUST 08: U.S. Air Force Maj. Casey Tidgewell pilots an MQ-9 Reaper on … [+] a training mission from a ground control station August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force’s first “hunter-killer” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators, reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Getty Images

RPA or RPV: Remotely Piloted Aircraft/Vehicle. Alternate term used to emphasize the remote-control nature of many (but not all) UAVs.

UAVs by Type

MALE drone:  Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance drone—flies between 10,000 and 30,000 feet and is designed to orbit over a designated area for a dozen hours or longer. This encompasses UCAVs like the Reaper or its piston-engine predecessor the MQ-1 Predator.

US Conducts Air War Against ISIL From Secret Base In Persian Gulf Region

UNSPECIFIED, UNSPECIFIED – JANUARY 07: A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle … [+] (UAV), carrying a Hellfire missile lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. The U.S. military and coalition forces use the base, located in an undisclosed location, to launch airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to distribute cargo and transport troops supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. The Predators at the base are operated and maintained by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, currently attached to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Getty Images

HALE drone:   High Altitude Long-Endurance drones can fly for a day or two at a time at altitudes exceeding 60,000 feet. HALE drones are used to perform wide-area surveillance missions using powerful sensors, similar to the U-2 spy plane. Thy tend to be large, expensive and non-expendable.

Example: The huge RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone, and the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance variant.

Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk Drone...

BERLIN, GERMANY – JUNE 08: Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk Drone of the German Air Force. (Photo … [+] by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

Photothek via Getty Images

Tactical drones are meant to operate at lower altitudes and relatively close to friendly territory (within roughly 100 miles).

MAV: Micro Air Vehicles, or microdrones are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. That means even rifleman can their own personal short-range spy drone to scout ahead, peering around street corners, behind walls, and over mountain ridges.

Example: The Black Hornet mini-drone, or Soldier Born Sensor in U.S. Army service, weighs only one ounce and has battery life for 20 minutes of flight.

Autonomous Warrior 18 exercise

STANDALONE PHOTO A Black Hornet camera-equipped drone on Salisbury Plain during exercise Autonomous … [+] Warrior 18, where military personnel, government departments and industry partners are taking part in Exercise Autonomous Warrior, working with NATO allies in a groundbreaking exercise to understand how the military can exploit technology in robotic and autonomous situations. (Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images)

PA Images via Getty Images

sUAS/sUAV or Microdrone: Small Unmanned Aerial System—or drones that weigh less than 50 pounds.  Military ground forces make extensive use of microdrones like the four-pound RQ-11 Raven for surveillance and artillery spotting purposes.


A US soldier from the United Stade Marine Corps (USMC) of Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 6th … [+] Marine Regiment (BLT 2/6), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit launches an RQ-11 b Raven Unmanned Aerial Vehicle 3D model during the joint Israeli-US military “Juniper Cobra” exercise at the Tze’elim urban warfare training centre (UWTC) base in southern Israel on March 12, 2018. Exercise Juniper Cobra is a five-day combined military exercise between Israel and the United States. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

Insurgents have also modified commercial, off-the-shelf civilian sUASs to perform lethal attacks with grenades.

Loitering munitions or kamikaze drones are generally small, expendable explosive-laden UAVs designed to perform one-way attack missions by crashing into a target.

Example: Israel Aeronautic Industry’s Harops (“Harpy”) was the first purpose-designed kamikaze drone to be used in battle in 2016, when an Azerbaijani Harpy crashed into a bus full of Armenian militia, killing seven. Harops appear to have been used by Israel to knock out Syrian air defense systems.

Drones On Display At The 50th Paris International Air Show

A HAROP unmanned air vehicle (UAV) or drone, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI), … [+] sits on display outside the company’s stand on the second day of the Paris Air Show in Paris, France, on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. The 50th International Paris Air Show is the world’s largest aviation and space industry show, and takes place at Le Bourget airport June 17-23. Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg


Ground-Based Drones

UGV   Unmanned Ground Vehicle—a ground-based drone. These historically have primarily been employed for dangerous missions such as demolition and de-mining operations.

Russian Armed Forces' International Mine Action Center equipment transferred to Syrian city of Palmyra

MOSCOW REGION, RUSSIA. MARCH 29, 2016. An Uran-6 military mine clearing robotic complex of the … [+] Russian Armed Forces’ International Mine Action Center being loaded into an Antonov An-124 Ruslan airlift jet aircraft. The equipment will be used in a mine-clearing operation in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Russian Defence Ministry’s Press and Information Department/TASS (Photo by TASSTASS via Getty Images)

TASS via Getty Images

New rover-style UGVs may also be useful to help soldiers carry heavy equipment, weapons and even wounded soldiers into and out of combat zones, or perform surveillance or sentry missions.

Future Combat Systems Technology Demonstration

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 21: FUTURE COMBAT SYSTEMS TECHNOLOGY DEMONSTRATION–A Small Unmanned … [+] Ground Vehicle during a demonstration of future combat systems for Army Secretary Francis Harvey, Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker and the media at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The remote control vehicle carries cameras for surveillance and reconnaissance, and is modular in design to allow different configurations. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

UGCV Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle—a ground-based drone that designed principally to engage enemy forces with weapons. Because its much harder for a ground vehicle to maintain a communications link outside of friendly territory than it is for a flying drone, UGCVs have mostly yet to enter operational service. 

Russia recently combat-tested its formidable-looking Uran-9 UGCV in Syria—with disappointing results due to command-link disruptions.

Dress rehearsal of Victory Day Parade in Moscow

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – MAY 6, 2018: An Uran-9 military robot seen in Moscow’s Red Square during a dress … [+] rehearsal of the upcoming 9 May military parade marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the Eastern Front of World War II. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS (Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images)

Sergei Savostyanov/TASS

The U.S. Army plans for its replacement to its many M2 Bradley fighting vehicles to be the OMFV–or Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle. The OMFV would normally be carry a human crew and infantry squad, but be operable by remote control for risky supply runs and scouting missions.

Sea-based Drones

USV    Unmanned Surface Vehicle—a drone surface ship. As for aircraft, doing away dozens of human crew drastically reduces size and cost. 

The U.S. Navy has been testing the Sea Hunter drone ship and is requesting proposals for several types of USVs. 

To distribute firepower across the fleet and reduce personnel costs, the U.S. Navy plans for a “Ghost Fleet” of Medium and Large multi-mission drone ships (MUSVs and LUSVs) that can battle submarines and surface targets, as well as a Mine Countermeasure USV to undertake dangerous mine-hunting and sweeping duties.

UUV   Unmanned Underwater Vehicle—a submarine drone. Historically, these have often been small, tethered systems used to recover items from the sea floor and even perform clandestine intelligence missions. 

Future UUVs will include fully robotic Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs)–that perform search missions or hunt submarines and surface ships directed by AI algorithms rather than human operators, including Large Displacement Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (LDUUV) that approach the size and capabilities of a full-size attack submarine. As detailed in an article by H.I. Sutton, China may be the first country to deploy an LDUUV.

In 2018, Vladimir Putin announced Russia was developing an autonomous intercontinental-range nuclear-powered UUV/drone torpedo called Poseidon to deliver strategic nuclear attacks on coastal cities or fleets at sea. A new Khabarovsk-class of submarines is being built to launch four Poseidon UUVs.

Control Systems

The vast majority of drones depend upon human operators, meaning their range is limited by the reach of their command link. A radio-controlled Turkish Bayraktar or Israeli Hermes UAV may only be capable of roving around 100 miles away from its command unit.

Teknofest Istanbul

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – SEPTEMBER 17: Bayraktar Akinci Attack Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (TIHA), developed … [+] by Baykar, is seen during Turkeys largest technology and aerospace event TEKNOFEST Istanbul, at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, Turkey on September 17, 2019. The festival will host several activities such as aviation exhibitions, seminars, workshops, drone championship, contests and concerts. (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A satellite-uplink enabled MQ-9 drones over Afghanistan can be controlled by an operator in Virginia, USA—with just a 1.2-second transmission delay.

Keeping pilots close to home cuts costs, but can still make for a grueling experience: American UCAV pilots typically work 12-hour shifts, and suffer from high rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A remotely piloted system is directly controlled by an operator, and only does things it’s told to do—save that it may be programmed to avoid crashing and return towards its operator if it loses contact.

A semi-autonomous system can perform some or all of its missions without human input if necessary, though it will likely remain tethered to a human operator (“man-in-the-loop”) who can intervene and take control of the drone at any time.

A fully autonomous system is designed to perform its mission without human input and does not require a command-link.

Advanced UAV Technologies

Due to their cost and long endurance, drones of various kinds have transformed how militaries perform surveillance operations and targeted killings. However, more advanced UAV systems in development are poised to disrupt the role of existing manned jet fighters and air defense systems.

In a forthcoming piece, we’ll look at some of these high-end UAVs that have entered, or are on the cusp of entering, service—including stealth drones, small swarming drones, drone- tankers, and ‘Loyal Wingmen’ fighter drones.

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