Лекция: Joining the Drones Club

Aug 15th 2011, 11:20 by The Economist online

THE future of air power is likely to be unmanned. It may also be surprisingly small. Reapers and Predators grab the headlines, but these big, high-profile dronesare already outnumbered by small and cheap but capable craft.

One good example is the RQ-11B Raven, made by AeroVironment of Monrovia, California, and widely used by America’s armed forces. It looks like a model aircraft. When disassembled it fits into a backpack. Launching it is just a matter of snapping the parts together and throwing it into the air, whence it is carried aloft by an electric propeller. It weighs just two kilograms. That means the American army’s entire annual purchase of almost 1,300 Ravens is lighter than a single fully armed Reaper. Pilots might dismiss Ravens as radio-controlled toys, but they are popular with soldiers and more are being rushed to Afghanistan.

At its simplest, a Raven acts as a flying pair of binoculars that can look over the next hill, or escort a convoy from above. Being small and quiet, it can get close to targets unobserved, for a good look. Unlike the bigger drones, whose limited numbers mean that officers in the field are in constant competition for their services, Ravens are abundant and thus generally available to provide instant video imagery, day or night. The global-positioning system tells it exactly where it is, and special display software means the images it sends back can be overlaid on a map to produce a moving picture of what is going on on the ground. A Raven’s operator can thus call down artillery fire with lethal precision without having to see the target directly. For extra accuracy, Raven can also mark targets with a laser illuminator.

Another reason for Raven’s popularity is that it is easy to use. The controlling hardware is a tablet computer with buttons on the side, something like a portablegames machine, and most people can get the hang of it in a couple of days. Predators, by contrast, were originally flown by real, albeit ground-based, pilots—and, though high demand for operators has led to a new rapid-training course for groundlings, this course still takes 22 weeks to complete.

Ravens are now being upgraded to use a communications system that provides enough bandwidth for 40 of them to fly in the same area, instead of the current four. This digital upgrade also turns the drones into networked devices that can communicate with other robots and systems.

AeroVironment is collaborating with DARPA, America’s main weapons-research agency, to use this ability to network in a project called HART (Heterogeneous Airborne Reconnaissance Team), which has a pool of drones including Ravens that fly autonomously over the battlefield. When a soldier wants to see a particular area or follow a specific vehicle, he just clicks on it on a map. The system selects a drone from those available in the area, flies it into position and sends back pictures with no need for human control.

Future Ravens may be able to strike as well as scout. The American army has experimented with turning the drones into miniature bombers, capable of delivering grenade-sized weapons. Such bombs would be enough to destroy a small vehicle or take out the occupants of a particular room with high precision and little collateral damage.

For greater punch, AeroVironment has a prototype version of a lethal drone called Switchblade. This resembles Raven, but is a flying bomb, packed with explosives. Its guidance software enables it to lock on to and follow a rapidly moving target, even if that target is trying to evade its attention. A mixture of Ravens and Switchblades could thus make an effective hunter-killer team.

As electronics get ever smaller, small drones get more capable. At the moment, Ravens cost around $56,000 each, and economies of scale should bring this down. By contrast, machines like the Predator cost at least $5m, and another $5,000 an hour to fly. That is how the Pentagon can afford to buy so many Ravens, compared with just a few dozen Predators and Reapers each year. From the army’s point of view, small is definitely beautiful.

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