on October 23rd, 2011

A few weeks ago, an al Qaeda operative sitting on his pick-up truck deep in Yemeni desert was taken out by a missile from an American drone. There has been a rapid escalation in the use of drones which are also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Typically with a support crew of almost 200 people to keep them flying, they each cost millions of dollars apiece and have a virtual pilot located up to ten thousand kms away operating at their controls and another officer reading the data pouring in from the sensors (including radar). These aircrafts can hang around aloft for up to 24 hours sending back full motion video to their controllers. It is virtually impossible to see these drones in the sky as they can view objects from kms away.

These drones are also referred to as the Predator or Reaper aircraft. Loaded with highly effective sensors, missiles and bombs, they regularly launch strikes particularly in the hard to patrol tribal areas in Afghanistan (and those which are littered with push-button volatile devices). Indeed any work which is ‘dull, dirty, dangerous, difficult or different’. There has been a huge increase in combat air patrols with UAVs with more hours being flown here than by their manned strike aircraft equivalents. The size ranges from large (wingspan up to 30m) to micro devices (the size of an insect).

There is naturally huge controversy over the next generation of drones being provided with artificial intelligence to provide a high level of autonomy.

I am sure at this point; there are a few of you dear readers who are shifting uneasily in your seat about another example of combat descending to another level of brutality. But surely we can use these drones for peacetime purposes as well….

Great opportunities for extending the peace
Drones can surely be used in considerably more areas than conflict with possibility for these versatile beasts in law enforcement, rescue missions, border patrols, environmental surveillance, traffic control and mining studies. I have even seen some stupendous aerial photography from a drone done of a surfer ‘riding’ down the crest of a gigantic wave. These aircrafts can stay up longer, operate in extremely inhospitable environments and eventually are expendable. Drones also automate much of the trivial work by taking off and landing automatically and getting to the target area without intervention of their (distant) pilots.

Some major technical weaknesses which have to be confronted
The technical weaknesses include the need for two-way satellite communications. If the link is lost, the distant pilot loses direct control, and a failsafe system has to be employed to sustain operation until communications is recovered. There would also be the problem of latency in responses between pilot and aircraft (presumably of the order of a second on some occasions). The other concern with this proliferation of unmanned drones is the likelihood of a rogue aircraft hitting a passenger aircraft. Without a shadow of doubt, the drug-cartels are using drones to fly their deadly cargoes in undetected and to work out ways to break the law.

And with the incredible leaps in the use of remote controlled software for these applications, I liked the ironic comment: Now about that computer bug that infected a fleet of drones.

What about your engineering work which is ‘dull, dirty, dangerous or different’?
Think about your engineeering applications for drones ranging from a few mms to metres in size. In the engineering world we have a ferocious number of applications for work which is:  ‘dull, dirty, dangerous, difficult or different’.

With this rapid growth in aircraft technology, Arthur C. Clarke’s comment is true: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Thanks to The Economist, Romney Schield (and Channel 9’s 60 Minutes) for some interesting comments and references on this topic.

Yours in engineering learning


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