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US, UK deploy manned unmanned aircraft to save bandwidth

Backseaters still tolerating pilots for now

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It's being suggested that the use of FLKAs as opposed to UAVs may be a matter of satellite bandwidth as much as UAV manufacturing and crewing issues. A Predator relaying full-motion hi-res video or detailed radar imagery is a massive bandwidth hog, and if it is out of line-of-sight from a friendly ground base it must normally use satcomms. Not only is this expensive, but there is a hard limit on how much satellite bandwidth is available in any given region even for the Pentagon - and especially for the UK Ministry of Defence, which gets billed for the use of its new privately financed Skynet 5 commsats on a per megabyte pay-as-you-go basis**.

According to Bill Sweetman, the continuing popularity of FLKAs might show that the demise of the human pilot isn't yet imminent:

The FLKA, with sensor operators, intelligence specialists and linguists in the cabin, is autonomous [needing very little bandwidth].

The FLKA has two other advantages: there are no problems about UAVs in civil airspace, and (particularly in North America) pilots are really, really cheap...

Back in the 1950s, Britain's tiny Saunders-Roe company was building the rocket-powered SR.53 fighter. Designer Maurice Brennan, according to some of my old Flight colleagues, used to defend the concept against missile fanatics by remarking that "the guidance system weighs 200 pounds and drinks gin." That argument seems to be valid today.

Well, kind of. Actually there's no technical need for pilots to be aboard the aircraft - as opposed to the imagery analysts, sensor ops and possibly linguists (if you were so hard-up for bandwidth you couldn't even manage voice channels). The next-gen Predator UAV, aka "Sky Warrior", shortly to enter US Army service, won't need a remote pilot. It will fly itself for an entire mission, operated by non-commissioned tech personnel rather than wings-on-chest officers.

The Sky Warrior will still need lots of bandwidth, of course, and will be pricey in this context, so the FLKAs will probably stay popular. But its not the gin drinking meat guidance system that keeps them so - it's the bandwidth-saving people in the back.

Indeed, Boeing's unsuccessful contender for the US Navy's ocean-surveillance requirement was an "optionally manned" Gulfstream biz jet, which could carry a bandwidth-lite but endurance-limited human crew or go up empty for longer flights.

Theoretically, there'd be nothing to prevent the use of planes with human backseaters but no pilots, saving on bandwidth and gin. Obviously it'll probably never happen for morale reasons. The most one might see would be an occasional shot-down pilot or specwar operative flown out of trouble by a robotic A160T Hummingbird kill-chopper, perhaps.

Even so. Your correspondent, drinking gin with a Royal Navy search-and-rescue pilot some years ago, enquired what pilots really think of the backseat mission-systems types.

"I've never taken off with an observer on board where I wouldn't rather have had the same weight of fuel," he said.

The day appears to be coming where bandwidth-saving backseaters in the Southwest Asian Wars on Stuff could say the same of their chauffeurs up front. ®

Bootnotes

*The CIA was the first agency to use armed Predators to kill people, and has maintained its own fleet since the last century. These UAVs are thought to be the ones now operating aggressively against al-Q and the Taliban in the border areas of Pakistan, allowing US military commanders across the frontier in Afghanistan to deny all knowledge.

**The British Army is so keen to save on bandwidth that its new Watchkeeper drone is intended to be able to operate in pairs, one working as line-of-sight comms relay for the other. This might, in fact, be the kind of plan that resolves the satellite bandwidth issue in the medium term.

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