PORTLAND, Ore. (Apr. 7, 2016) Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned ocean-going vessel gets … [+]
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.
A Hermes 450 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), which is a remotely controlled reconnaissance aircraft, … [+]
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.
ZHUHAI, CHINA – NOVEMBER 02: Unmanned aerial vehicle Wing Loong is on display during the 11th China … [+]
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.
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV – NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior … [+]
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV – AUGUST 08: U.S. Air Force Maj. Casey Tidgewell pilots an MQ-9 Reaper on … [+]
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.
UNSPECIFIED, UNSPECIFIED – JANUARY 07: A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle … [+]
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.
BERLIN, GERMANY – JUNE 08: Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk Drone of the German Air Force. (Photo … [+]
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.
STANDALONE PHOTO A Black Hornet camera-equipped drone on Salisbury Plain during exercise Autonomous … [+]
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 … [+]
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.
A HAROP unmanned air vehicle (UAV) or drone, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI), … [+]
UGV Unmanned Ground Vehicle—a ground-based drone. These historically have primarily been employed for dangerous missions such as demolition and de-mining operations.
MOSCOW REGION, RUSSIA. MARCH 29, 2016. An Uran-6 military mine clearing robotic complex of the … [+]
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.
UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 21: FUTURE COMBAT SYSTEMS TECHNOLOGY DEMONSTRATION–A Small Unmanned … [+]
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.
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – MAY 6, 2018: An Uran-9 military robot seen in Moscow’s Red Square during a dress … [+]
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.
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.
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.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY – SEPTEMBER 17: Bayraktar Akinci Attack Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (TIHA), developed … [+]
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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