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Pilotless Spy Planes and Automatic Airliners

The 20-hourflights of which the latest long-haul airliners are capable might seem verylong to you ? but imagine an aircraft able to fly nonstop for five years.

That?s exactlywhat the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has asked aerospacecompanies to build, for a new aerial surveillance project that DARPA calls VULTURE.

So serious isDARPA about demonstrating five-year flight duration that it scheduled anindustry-day event on June 7 so it could discuss the project in detail withlikely bidders.

DARPA wantsVULTURE, which will almost certainly be solar-powered, to be able to carry a1,000-pound payload. This would include onboard sensors and communicationsequipment and would generate 5 kilowatts of electricity to power the aircraft?ssystems.

VULTURE standsfor Very-high altitude, Ultra-endurance, Loitering Theater UnmannedReconnaissance Element. The word ?Unmanned? is key: It?ll be a long time beforeany people-carrying aircraft will be able to stay aloft for five years.

But theproposition is much more realistic if you use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

UAVs havebeen around for a long time: the first, the Kettering ?Bug?,was developed during World War One.

When Capt.Ronald Reagan sent a photographer along to Radioplane in 1945 to take picturesof women assembling the company?s OQ-3 remote-control target aircraft, thephotographer snapped some shots of a young woman called Norma Jean Daugherty. Thepictures brought her fame ? as Marilyn Monroe.

Foraviation, UAVs represent the wave of the future, particularly for military uses.

Aircraftthat don?t have to take into account the limitations imposed by humanphysiology can be much more maneuverable than piloted aircraft. And they canperform dull, long or dangerous missions unsuitable ? or physically impossible? for people.

Becausethey are unmanned, UAVs can be designed to suit specific tasks and to offerperformance characteristics piloted aircraft can?t match.

They can bevery small or very large. Some proposed UAV projects involve airships, whilemany existing programs use aircraft very like the remote-control models sold inhobby shops. Some UAVs are helicopters ? and one test-flown successfully in the United Kingdom is a tiny flying saucer.

UAVs nowrepresent very big money. Armed forces throughout the world ? including allfour arms of the U.S. military, as well as the Coast Guard ? already operate ahuge variety of UAVs. The U.S. Air Force?s Predator and Global Hawk UAVs arefamous because of the roles they have played in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

At least 90percent of all UAV use today is military. That doesn?t mean UAVs can?t be usedwidely for civilian applications too. In Japan, nearly 2,000 tiny YamahaRMAX helicopters, powered by two-stroke motorcycle engines, are used to spraysmall rice paddies with pesticide.

UAVs wouldbe ideal for aerial jobs such as police surveillance, pollution-controlmonitoring, fighting forest fires and inspecting pipelines, said Andr? Clot,vice-chairman of United Kingdom-based Unmanned Aerial Vehicle SystemsAssociation (UAVSA), established topromote civil use of UAVs.

?If it?sdangerous, dull or dirty, UAVs are not a bad idea,? said Clot.

But a majorproblem must be solved for UAVs to see wide application in civil aviation. Theworld?s civil aviation regulators must become satisfied that UAVs can operate safelyand seamlessly within the complex air traffic control and civil airspacesystems established for human-piloted aircraft.

To do so,UAVs must be able to sense and avoid other aircraft flying nearby and operatorsmust have reliable communications links with their UAVs to maintain controlover them at all times ? and to make sure they know exactly where their UAVsare.

Safety andcontrol standards must be completely equivalent to those involving piloted aircraft.Also, UAVs will need to provide to air traffic controllers and pilots of otheraircraft the same information about their flight plans that manned aircraftprovide.

The key isfor companies to design their UAVs to the same structural standards and withthe same control and communications capabilities as piloted aircraft, saidClot.

In the UK, aerospace manufacturers now classify their unmanned products as ?aircraft? rather than?UAVs? to engender this thinking.

Theincreasing degree to which control of piloted aircraft and their communicationsis becoming automated works in favor of the UAV. So does the growing automationof air traffic management.

Digitalautomation techniques for aircraft control and communication are the same forpiloted aircraft as for UAVs. Once all communications and control is digitized,with each aircraft sending back data to the ground all the time, anything thatgoes wrong with one can be fixed very quickly throughout the entire fleet.

?We willlose a few times, but we will get much better very quickly,? said Clot.?Reliability will jump.?

Airlinersalready operate largely automatically, particularly when landing in poorweather. As the automation of aviation accelerates, the idea of flying on apilotless airliner may become fact sooner rather than later.

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Chris Kjelgaard has more than 40 years of experience writing about and consulting on the civil aviation industry, aerospace and travel. He was a senior editor of from 2007-2008, and now works as a freelance writer and consultant in the aviation industry. He holds a B.S. in genetics from The University of Edinburgh.