USAF ramps up kill-bot fleet following Gates sackings

Fly my way not the high way, says purge surge SecDef


US defence secretary Robert Gates has ordered further reinforcements for America's aerial killer robot flotillas patrolling the skies of Southwest Asia, according to reports. Gates' freedom to assign the extra drones is widely being seen as following on from his recent firing of top US Air Force chiefs, possibly inclined to drag their feet on the deployment of unmanned aircraft to support troops on the ground.

Aviation Week reports that the USAF has now been directed to put a further six Predator and one Reaper "orbits" into operation within the US Central Command area of responsibility, covering the Iraq and Afghanistan warzones. An orbit, or standing combat air patrol, means an aircraft constantly in the sky. Maintaining this in the case of the Predator and Reaper requires four robo-planes per orbit, but this isn't the problem. The USAF reportedly won't need to buy any new hardware.

Squadron Leader Keven Gambold RAF in the thick of the action

An unmanned pilot.

The problem is manpower, as current Predators and Reapers both require constant piloting while in the air. During take off and landing this is handled by pilots who are physically present at the airfield in question, to minimise latency lag, but normal operations are controlled from the USA via satcomms.

Operating Predators remotely is considered one of the most unpleasant duties in the whole US air force, despite the huge popularity of the aircraft with embattled troops on the ground. A recent study said that Air Force drone jockeys based near Las Vegas were suffering "chronic burnout" not to mention "significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion" and even "impaired domestic relationships".

Some of this at least may due to the fact that the drone squadrons work many more hours on the stick than ordinary air crews, owing to the huge amounts of time their aircraft spend in the air compared to manned ones.

The USAF might not find it impossibly difficult to expand its ranks of non-commissioned sensor operators, solving at least some of its man-hour issues. But at present the air force insists that the pilot seats in the ground stations are filled by fully qualified aviators with meatspace flight time. Institutional resistance on the part of the wings-on-chest community to becoming ground-bound drone drivers has made this a difficult policy to man up, so much so that Gates previously described the process of expanding drone operations as "like pulling teeth". It would certainly be a strange jet jockey who didn't feel he'd lost some of his identity as a real fighting man, a front line combatant, with a switch to duty at Las Vegas or inside the wire in theatre.

The US Army has a different plan. Its new Predator variant, the "Sky Warrior", is to use automated takeoff and landing, and would be operated on the job by non-aircrew tech specialists. These plans are also facing strong objections from the pilot community. Following a recent failed attempt by the USAF to seize control of all serious unmanned air operations, however, these objections seem likely to be overruled in the case of Sky Warrior.

This rather schizophrenic attitude to unmanned aircraft on the part of pilot-dominated organisations may offer a clue as to why the technology has taken so long to develop. The recent firing of air force bosses Wynne and Moseley, at least, would appear the have loosened the grip of the military aircrew unions somewhat.

Read the Av Week report here. ®

Broader topics

Narrower topics


Other stories you might like

  • Look to insects if you want to build tiny AI robots that are actually smart
    Flying, swarming, decision making already in production in nature

    Roboticists could learn a thing or two from insects if they're looking to build tiny AI machines capable of moving, planning, and cooperating with one another.

    The six-legged creatures are the largest and most diverse multi-cellular organisms on Earth. They have evolved to live in all sorts of environments and exhibit different types of behaviors to survive and there are insects that fly, crawl, and swim.

    Insects are surprisingly intelligent and energy efficient given the size of their small brains and bodies. These are traits that small simple robots should have if they are to be useful in the real world, a group of researchers posited in a paper published in Science Robotics on Wednesday.

    Continue reading
  • Drone ship carrying yet more drones launches in China
    Zhuhai Cloud will carry 50 flying and diving machines it can control with minimal human assistance

    Chinese academics have christened an ocean research vessel that has a twist: it will sail the seas with a complement of aerial and ocean-going drones and no human crew.

    The Zhu Hai Yun, or Zhuhai Cloud, launched in Guangzhou after a year of construction. The 290-foot-long mothership can hit a top speed of 18 knots (about 20 miles per hour) and will carry 50 flying, surface, and submersible drones that launch and self-recover autonomously. 

    According to this blurb from the shipbuilder behind its construction, the Cloud will also be equipped with a variety of additional observational instruments "which can be deployed in batches in the target sea area, and carry out task-oriented adaptive networking to achieve three-dimensional view of specific targets." Most of the ship is an open deck where flying drones can land and be stored. The ship is also equipped with launch and recovery equipment for its aquatic craft. 

    Continue reading
  • Beijing needs the ability to 'destroy' Starlink, say Chinese researchers
    Paper authors warn Elon Musk's 2,400 machines could be used offensively

    An egghead at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, writing in a peer-reviewed domestic journal, has advocated for Chinese military capability to take out Starlink satellites on the grounds of national security.

    According to the South China Morning Post, lead author Ren Yuanzhen and colleagues advocated in Modern Defence Technology not only for China to develop anti-satellite capabilities, but also to have a surveillance system that could monitor and track all satellites in Starlink's constellation.

    "A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation's operating system," the Chinese boffins reportedly said, estimating that data transmission speeds of stealth fighter jets and US military drones could increase by a factor of 100 through a Musk machine connection.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022