General: Demand for drones is ‘insatiable’Lt. Gen. Larry James oversees the Air Force’s reconnaissance efforts, including its many unmanned aircraft. But when he spoke in Grand Forks recently, he sounded almost awestruck by the growing demand for the technology.
By: By Tu-Uyen Tran, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Lt. Gen. Larry James oversees the Air Force’s reconnaissance efforts, including its many unmanned aircraft. But when he spoke in Grand Forks recently, he sounded almost awestruck by the growing demand for the technology.
He tossed out fact after fact. In March, Air Force unmanned aircraft surpassed 1 million combat operations. Its Predator and Reaper aircraft have tracked 19,000 targets. Even fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force has had to send unmanned aircraft to aid disaster relief in Haiti and Japan and help allies over Libya.
Demand will only grow, he said. In five years, the amount of data transmitted by Air Force unmanned aircraft is projected to reach an exabyte a day.
That’s 1.1 billion gigabytes, equivalent to 228.5 million DVDs.
How can human beings deal with that much information? he asked. The technology will have to evolve in a way where machines do most of the work, he said.
Technology, and implicitly, the demand it would address, dominated much of the day’s discussion at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Summit at the Alerus Center, hosted by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D.
Conrad told reporters that the No. 1 request he’s heard from combatant commanders is more unmanned aircraft.
Demand for unmanned aircraft within the military means demand for more airframes, more variety, more flights, more personnel, more sensors, more data, more flexibility in how that data is distributed. More more more, demand exacerbating demand.
For example, because unmanned aircraft can loiter over the battlefield for so long, it takes more than one pilot to take full advantage of each. Global Hawks can stay in the air for more than 32 hours at a time and experiments in aerial refueling between unmanned aircraft means they might be able to endure for days. No single pilot could last that long.
Col. James Gear, director of the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft task force, said unmanned aircraft should be almost entirely automated so the humans can be productively engaged in tasks the machines aren’t good at.
It now takes 570 pilots to maintain 50, 24-hour orbits over the battlefield, Gear said at an October conference, according to the Air Force Times. Automation and technology allowing individual pilots to oversee multiple aircraft could cut that number to 150, he said.
That becomes more important because Gear envisioned the day that a single unmanned aircraft could act as a carrier for multiple smaller unmanned aircraft.
In another example of exacerbation, the demand for more sensors drives up the amount of data transmitted, which could one day become so immense that it cannot all be transmitted with the available radio frequencies.
James spoke of new “hyperspectral” sensors being tested for unmanned aircraft. These are sensors that can break down the color spectrum into very thin bands, the idea being that different objects have different signatures at discrete bands on the spectrum. These sensors collect more data than say an ordinary visible light camera.
To cope with the ever higher data requirement, James said, the unmanned aircraft should become smart enough to figure out which set of data is important and send only that to controllers on the ground.
The demand for more has spread to law enforcement, too.
Tom Faller, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s unmanned aircraft director, said it’s “insatiable.” Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano once asked his agency just how many unmanned aircraft they need, he said, and his staff struggled with the answer. Finally, he said, they asked her in return: What level of response do you want should something awful happen in the United States?
They decided on a plan to distribute six air stations throughout the United States — one of them is already at Grand Forks Air Force Base — with two Predators each, he said. That’s enough to get an aircraft anywhere in the continental United States in four hours.
Faller told a story that illustrated the demand for the 10 Predators that his agency owns.
In January, the Grand Forks station received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly within a 100-mile-wide swath from the air base to Spokane, Wash. Only a few days after that happened, a pipe bomb was found along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane. The FBI fingered the suspect in March and asked Customs to use its Predator to keep an eye on the suspect so they could arrest him with minimal violence.
It’s not just the FBI either, said Faller, as he ticked off one agency after another, the Texas Rangers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal Bureau of Land Management. And, he said, officials in the Red River Valley have asked for help during the spring flood fight.
Tu-Uyen Tran is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald,
which is owned by Forum Communications Co.