WASHINGTON -- In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have received more attention, and more funding to boot, from the U.S. military, as well as from Israel, parts of Europe and Russia, as a cheaper alternative to manned aircraft for a variety of missions.
The trend is only accelerating as a growing list of countries turn to UAVs for their military potential. Even civil and commercial users are beginning to weigh the costs and benefits of UAVs for other uses, experts said.
"The whole thing about the operation of UAVs is that it isn't so exotic anymore," said Larry Dickerson, an unmanned systems analyst for Forecast International, Inc. of Newtown, Conn. "People are becoming more comfortable with the whole idea, to a point."
UAV's are just beginning to be exploited for uses beyond military surveillance, according to experts, and are being groomed to become faster, more reliable and to have enhanced capabilities.
The international landscape
While the United States has equipped some of its UAVs, such as the Predator, with weapons, others are still relying on the UAV for its originally-intended purpose. "The difference between the U.S. UAV programs and the programs we see in other countries is that elsewhere, the emphasis is very much on surveillance," said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The UAV is a cheap way for them to duplicate the surveillance capabilities the U.S. can get from satellites. They haven't looked as closely at weaponization; at least, no one is admitting that in public."
There has been an increase in interest in UAVs in countries in Asia and the Middle East, according to Dickerson.
"There's a much larger number of countries coming out and actually saying, 'Yes, we're going to pursue UAVs," Dickerson said.
Japan is looking at producing a high-end UAV system which can do over-ocean surveillance and high-altitude surveillance, while countries like South Korea and Taiwan are hoping to build long-endurance vehicles which can be used over international airspace, he said.
"You're also seeing more cooperation at the high-end between countries," Dickerson said. As countries look to equip their UAVs with additional capabilities, companies from different countries that produce them might choose to pair with each other to develop a particular project.
UAVs are gaining more attention for U.S. civil government agency uses, including border patrol, homeland security, air traffic control and emergency response. But there are still difficulties which come with using unmanned vehicles for these purposes.
"In some ways we haven't made as much as we could out of UAV capabilities," Lewis said. "[Border patrol] is an ideal situation for UAVs, as you have a long, undefended border with very different terrain, unpopulated in many areas. The ability to loiter over a large area and fly at night would all be advantages. It's an opportunity we haven't exploited."
The Department of Homeland Security had its first Predator B vehicle for border patrol use delivered Sept. 29.
But using UAVs for homeland security purposes has its risks, according to Victoria Samson, a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information.
"My concern is that while they've certainly improved situational awareness, it's not at 100 percent," said Samson. "These are pretty crowded air quarters, and we have to ensure that UAVs aren't going to crash with other aircrafts."
Overcrowded airspace becomes a problem when looking to rely on UAVs for air traffic control or emergency response, Dickerson said.
"It's very crowded up there," Dickerson said. "The [Federal Aviation Administration] and [Department of Homeland Security] haven't quite been able to work out a way to operate in civil airspace, so UAVs mostly operate in either controlled military or at very high altitudes, where there is a lot less traffic."
UAVs were largely unused during the recent Hurricane Katrina and Rita disaster response, according to Dickerson. This was mostly due to an inability to coordinate the airspace to ensure UAVs could fly safely, he said.
How much UAVs will be used for emergency response depends on a variety of factors, Dickerson said, one being the need to properly train those who operate the equipment. If used, Dickerson said, it is most likely to be on a case-by-case basis where military operators already trained in the use of the equipment assist, such as has happened previously with the Olympic Games. And if this trend continues, it is unlikely emergency responders will invest in UAVs for their own use.
"If you don't fly them all the time, what's the point of having them?" Dickerson said.
Lewis said there needs to be more of a focus on the tactical applications of UAVs, using them to over-fly a target, or to try to uncover roadside bombs.
For example, a UAV could be sent in front of a manned vehicle to fly past a target, which would avoid the risk of putting a manned vehicle in the more dangerous territory.
A commercial market?
UAVs have been used on a very limited basis commercially, experts agreed. Dickerson said that power companies in Nevada and other western states have occasionally relied on them for power line inspections, but only when the lines are in open areas, free of crowds. Oil companies have occasionally used UAVs for oil platform security internationally, but the trend isn't a burgeoning one.
"I think it's just not commercially appealing," Lewis said. "If you ask yourself, 'What can I get from an UAV that I can't get from an airplane or a helicopter?' I'm not sure there's enough of an advantage there. The needs of the commercial industry are different than the government's needs."
UAVs are finding a role as platforms for cameras during Hollywood productions, however, Dickerson said; though this has been happening for years now, the practice is gaining wider usage.
Another potential use is for monitoring traffic, but since news stations usually subscribe to a traffic service, it is unlikely each would pay to fund a vehicle, and the service itself would have to decide whether it was an economical option, Dickerson said.
"I think until they can get very well certain that [UAVs] fly safely and accurately and not crash on landing, I don't see any reason that commercial industries would want to pursue them," Samson said. "You'd be putting out a lot of money for a very dicey return."
UAV's usage may be growing, and their capabilities are increasing, but their bodies are actually getting smaller, Dickerson said. Companies are attempting to produce lightweight (2-5 kilogram), portable UAVs which could be hand launched or launched off of a small truck.
Experts agreed that the U.S. Army wants to see more easily-deployed vehicles with increased combat capabilities. They also want to be able to use multiple UAVs together to perform certain tasks in formation.
"The whole thing is, 'Make it do more,'" Dickerson said.
But as the use of UAVs becomes more prevalent, the amount of bandwidth necessary to keep them functioning becomes a problem, he said.
"UAVs are actually interfering with each other," Dickerson said. "It's escalating slowly. That's going to be a technology problem we'll have to address just because there's so much noise up there."
As shooting capabilities increase, though, users are going to have to do a cost/benefit analysis of whether the vehicles are worth the added expense.
"The problem is that adds to the weight and the cost and the technological difficulties, almost to where it gets more expensive than a regular manned vehicle," said Samson. "People have to ask themselves, "Ok, what benefit am I getting with a UAV with these added bells and whistles?'"
In terms of production, UAVs are still a market in which small companies can enter, Dickerson said, but the trend is shifting away from that direction.
"Now it's coming to the point where UAV contracts are with the big companies," Dickerson said. "As requirements are getting more complicated, the small companies are teaming their electronic expertise with deep-pocket backing."