Drone (Pilotless) aircraft
Daley Brathwaite
Drones or Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV’s) are
essentially aircraft that operate without the physical presence of a
human operator (pilot) on board. They are usually remotely
controlled from locations that can be up to thousands of miles
away. UAV’s tend to vary in size and can be as small as handheld toy
aircraft or as big as a family car. They are not limited to being fixed
winged aircraft as there are also rotorcraft (helicopter) variants in
The first known UAV was developed during the period
around the World War I. Its function was basically as an airborne
torpedo to combat the Zeppelins of that era. This aircraft made use of
gyros for stability an control and radio control techniques that were
revolutionary for that time. The program caught the attention of the US
Army which led to the development of the Kettering Bug which made its
inaugural flight in 1918.
In subsequent years this remote control technology saw
further use in the conversion of existing aircraft frames to drones. This
also led to the development of the idea of the anti-ship cruise missile
which was essentially a pilot less aircraft fitted with an auto pilot. Some
of these drones found use in becoming aerial targets for pilot training
purposes. This became the main role for the drones as the second
World War came around as various different airframes became utilised
from those of small fighters to large bomber aircraft. Eventually as
sufficient technology became available RCA television cameras were
fitted to drones and television screens in the controlling aircraft, leading
to the drones further used in their airborne torpedo roles by crashing
them into ground based targets.
These drones were making use of standard piston powered
power plants and it wasn’t until the advent of the Cold war era that
faster drones were developed to keep pace with the faster aircraft that
were chasing them.
As the United States made various tests on its nuclear
capacity at this time drones were outfitted an flown into the radioactive
cloud of detonated bombs to collect samples. (The human flight crews
originally tasked with this objective became sick as a result of radiation
It was around the late 1950’s when drones found their place in their more popular role as
reconnaissance platforms. The aircraft were fitted with cameras and flown over high priority areas to assess the
capacity. Since the aircraft didn’t have any pilots on board to be interrogated or killed in the event of a shootdown, these aircraft were utilised by both the Soviet Union and the United States.
By the time the Vietnam War started, drones had more or less become the principle means of
reconnaissance. The drones were painted grey on top with white bellies and flew fast and low to the ground so
they made for very difficult targets. Just over 100 missions were flown by these drones in the Vietnam War.
Thanks to significant advances to available technology and deeper understanding of
basic principles concerning flight, modern day UAV’s are leaps and bounds ahead of
their predecessors. The use of these machines, where once was mostly for military
purposes and to aid in destruction, has been changed somewhat to a more peaceful
role by taking up important scientific roles in aid of understanding the world around
• Oil, natural gas and mineral exploration- Specially outfitted UAV’s with sensors
designed to probe the inner makings of the earth are being utilised to obtain
measurements of the earth’s magnetic structure and hence predict the location of
various mineral deposits.
• Weather and Climate – Due to the absence of precious human cargo in the form of
pilots and crew, UAV’s are also used in the form of hurricane hunters. These aircraft
are fitted with sensors for temperature, wind, atmospheric pressure and humidity
to get a better understanding of the makeup of one of nature’s deadliest weapons
in hurricanes.
Agencies such as the US Custom and Border Protection (CBP) have
selected the UAV as one their primary means of protection from illegal immigrants
and drug smugglers. The UAV they utilise is known as the Predator.
The pic on the left
shows a picture
taken from a CBP
Predator patrolling
the US border.
The Predator
• The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator made its first
flight in January 1994
• It was initially conceived as a reconnaissance and
observation platform however has since been
modified to fire missiles or other munitions.
• The Predator is used primarily by the US Air Force
and the CIA and has seen action in theatres such as
the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.
• It is propeller driven and has a very long endurance;
capable of 14 hour station time over targets.
• Initially the first few moments of a Predator’s flight
were limited to close up radio control systems,
however it is now possible to do an entire flight
using satellite relays.
• Control of the Predator is via what is known as a C-band data
link for line of sight operations and a Ku satellite data link for
beyond line of sight operations
• The crew of the Predator typically consists of a pilot and a
sensor operator in the ground station.
• A colour nose camera is made use of by the pilot primarily for
flight control whereas the sensor operator uses a MultiSpectral Targeting System, a variable aperture TV day camera
and a variable aperture infrared camera.
• Click to see the Predator UAV in action
Future UAV’s
It is quite unclear what is on the horizon in terms of future UAV designs. Many big
names in aviation such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman do have concepts on
the drawing board and are definitely interested in this area. From their humble
beginnings as mere converted aircraft taking miniscule roles such as training
targets for pilots they have evolved into sophisticated aircraft capable of taking on
quite important functions in the aviation field.
History of unmanned aerial vehicles. Wikipedia. Web. 29 Jan. 2011
Unmanned aerial vehicles. Wikipedia. Web. 29 Jan. 2011
General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. Wikipedia. Web 29 Jan 2011
Predator RQ-1 / MQ-1 / MQ-9 Reaper - Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Airforcetechnology.com. Web. 28 Jan 2011