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MI5 to get unmanned 'manned unmanned' robo spyplanes?

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Counter Terror Expo In a confusing tech-pendulum backswing, it has now emerged that so-called "manned unmanned" spy aircraft are now able to operate without a crew. Yes, that's right: the unmanned manned unmanned robotic surveillance plane has arrived.

The new developments emerged yesterday at the Counter Terror Expo in London, where the world's spooks, spies, cops and mercenaries go to do business. The Reg got the chance to chat with Duncan Styles of DO Systems.

DO offers a variety of products, including specialist electro-optical bits for customers such as the UK's special forces and Apache attack-copter fleet. One of their more high-profile offerings in recent times has been the provision of Canadian Twin Star long-endurance light aircraft, carrying out surveillance missions from the British base at Basra in Iraq.

Real time airborne video and radar imaging like that from the Twin Stars at first came in large part from drone aircraft like the well-known US Predator and Reaper. As the wars in Southwest Asia have ground on, the number of patrolling roboplanes has gone up and up.

But the bandwidth required to transmit full-motion hires imagery back to control stations for analysis is massive, putting serious strain on available satellite resources. Thus, there has been a recent trend to purchase light civilian planes, fit them out with the same lightweight sensors used by the drones, and send them up with imagery analysts in the back.

With the analysis done on board, much less bandwidth is needed to pass on the results to ground commanders - hence the popularity of "manned unmanned" fleets delivered by initiatives like the US Project Liberty, or British use of Twin Star and King Air planes.

But sometimes bandwidth isn't that much of an issue, as for instance where line-of-sight can be maintained between a ground station and aircraft overhead, avoiding the need for expensive and limited satcomms. Then the pendulum sometimes swings back in favour of an unmanned aircraft, according to Styles - its advantages of longer endurance and no risk to crews become decisive above places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, UK police and spooks sometimes find overhead imagery or intercept data very useful back at home. Bandwidth isn't an issue here, as you can have a ground station anywhere you like. But unmanned aircraft aren't allowed to fly over most of Blighty, so here you want a pilot on board for legal reasons. This is also useful when sending an aircraft to or from an overseas warzone, as it must pass through lots of civil-regulated airspace on the way.

The best of all worlds, according to Styles, is the forthcoming Twin Star upgrade which will allow it to be flown manned or unmanned. Thus a legally-required pilot can ride in it on trips to or from theatres abroad; backseater analysts can be carried if bandwidth is an issue; it can prowl the warzone skies empty, or lurk above the Midlands back here with a legally-mandated pilot aboard flicking through a magazine.

"It makes the clearance process so much easier," says Styles. DO Systems hope that UK security agencies such as the Counter Terrorism Command and MI5 might go for some optionally-crewed Twin Stars to supplement existing Islander twin-engine spy planes, occasionally operated for them above the mainland UK by the RAF.

So indeed, it seems that the day of the occasionally-unmanned manned UAV cyber-controllable spyplane is upon us. Strange times. ®

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