The Defense Department's "Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2005-2030" is a pretty cold-eyed document, detailing in no uncertain terms what the pilotless planes of the world can and cannot do. But there is a part of the Roadmap where the Pentagon's planners let their imagination run wild, where they consider the flying robotic equivalent to concept cars. Here are a few modelsDP-5Xlength: 11 ft. weight: 475 lbs. endurance: 5.5 hrs. 0 delivered/TBD plannedThe DP-5X is planned to be a VTOL [vertical take off and landing] UA [unmanned aircraft]. The program has successfully completed development and test milestones and is planning to enter initial flight demonstrations. The vehicle is modular and will facilitate reconfigurations to include or remove subsystem components. The modular design allows the aircraft to be separated into distinct modules that are man-transportable. The DP-5X has an ample payload capacity and is designed to fit into a common HMMWV system. The unique construction allows it to be rapidly launched by two operators. The vehicle can serve as a tactical Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA) and Communication Relay platform to the Army small unit commanders at the Battalion and below level.Long Gunlength: 12 ft. weight: 720 lbs. endurance: 30+ hrs. 0 delivered/TBD plannedThe DARPA Long Gun program will evaluate and develop a re-useable, long endurance, low cost, joint, unmanned/armed missile system combined with a tri-mode long wave infrared/near infrared/visible (LWIR/NIR/VIS) sensor with laser spot targeting. Ducted fan propulsion will provide efficient thrust for long endurance. The missile will be launched from a canister carried on a sea or ground vehicle, will fly to a specified target area, and use a tri-mode sensor operating at visible, long, and near-infrared wavelengths to search for targets. If a qualified target is found, the missile will attack the target with a self-contained munition. If no targets are found, the missile could be commanded to return to base. The missile will include a data link back to a human controller/ operator to confirm target characteristics, approve engagement, and perform battle damage assessment.A-160 Hummingbirdlength: 35 ft. weight: 4300 lbs. endurance: 18 hrs. 4 delivered/10 plannedThe A160 Hummingbird is designed to demonstrate the capability for marked improvements in performance (range, endurance, and controllability), as compared to conventional helicopters, through the use of a rigid rotor with variable RPM, lightweight rotor and fuselage structures, a high efficiency internal combustion engine, large fuel fraction, and an advanced semi-autonomous flight control/flight management system. The patented Optimum Speed Rotor (OSR) system allows the rotor to operate over a wide band of RPM and enables the A160 rotor blades to operate at the best lift/drag ratio over the full spectrum of flight conditions. First flight occurred in January 2002. In flight testing, using a 4-cylinder racing car engine, the A160 has achieved 135 knots speed, 7.3 hour endurance on an 18% fuel load, 7,000 ft altitude, and wide variation in rotor RPM. Autonomous flight achieved for take-off, waypoint flight, landing, and lost-link return to base. Current plans are to test with a 6-cylinder engine, then migrate to a turboshaft engine, and ultimately to a diesel engine, to achieve high endurance (24+ hours) and high altitude (30,000 feet). The DARPA contract ends in 2007.X-50 Dragonfly Canard Rotor/Wing (CRW)length: 17.7 ft. weight: 1485 lbs. endurance: 30 mins. 2 delivered/2 plannedThe CRW concept combines the VTOL capability of a helicopter with the high-subsonic cruise speed (as high as 400 knots) of a fixed-wing aircraft. CRW intends to achieve this by stopping and locking the rotor and using it as a wing to achieve high speed forward flight; the canard and tail provide additional lifting and control surfaces. For both rotary and fixed-wing flight modes, the CRW is powered by a conventional turbofan engine. The X- 50 is a technology demonstrator designed to assess and validate the CRW concept. Hover tests were conducted in December 2003 and March 2004, but a hard landing resulted in significant damage to the first air vehicle. The second X-50 is now being readied to continue the flight testing, planned for summer 2005.CormorantLength: 19 ft. weight: 9000 lbs. endurance: 3 hrsThe Cormorant project is currently conducting a series of risk reduction demonstrations for a multi-purpose UA that is immersible and capable of launch, recovery, and re-launch from a submerged SSGN [guided missile] submarine or a surface ship. Such an UA could provide all- weather ISR&T, BDA [battle damage assessment], armed reconnaissance, or SOF and specialized mission support. In particular, the combination of a stealthy SSGN submarine and a survivable air vehicle could introduce a disruptive capability to support future joint operations. If the current demonstrations are successful, follow-on efforts could involve building an immersible and flyable demonstrator UA.It's interesting to see, too, what's not on the Roadmap's list. For example, Future Combat Systems, the Army's gazillion dollar modernization program, is supposed to have at least four new kinds of flying drones by 2008, from backpack to mini-helicopter sized. But, according to the Roadmap, two of those four robo-planes will be ones that G.I.s are already flying. Instead of the UFO-buttplug hybrid that the Pentagon had originally been pushing to put in soldiers' packs, the model airplane-esque Raven will get the nod, at least initially. Although there are hopes for the DP-5X to become the Army's two-man portable drone of the future, the rail-launched Shadow 200, which first flew in 1991, will be drone of choice, for now.THERE'S MORE: Aviation Week looks at the Roadmap and notes that UA missions "will be quickly expanding into the more exotic areas of electronic jamming, communications interception, pulling imagery from obscure portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and the measurement of faint signals that could betray enemy activity."
The Roadmap has several chronological buckets for the appearance of specific capabilities. In 2005-10, some UAVs are to be inaudible from 1,000 ft. or less, detect targets under trees, distinguish facial features from 4 naut. mi., and automatically recognize target vehicles. By 2010-15, UAVs are to be capable of automated aerial refueling and employing a 100-band hyperspectral imagery sensor. Capabilities added in 2015-20 are to be the ability to map sea mines in real time and increased endurance (of 40%) without an increase in fuel load. The period 2025-30 is to produce 1,000-band hyperspectral imagery and human-equivalent processor speed and memory in a computer small enough for airborne use...One big obstacle to expansion, particularly among the most sophisticated of these aircraft, appears to be the recruitment and training of qualified pilots and sensor operators to fly and fight them. Possibly the most sought-after and overworked units are the U.S. Air Force's three Predator squadrons stationed at Nellis AFB and Creech AFB in Nevada; only the aircraft and small launch and recovery teams operate in Afghanistan and Iraq. Crews flying the overseas missions are actually operating from "cockpits" at Nellis.For example, the Predator training squadron flying from Creech will produce only 15 pilots and 15 sensor operators per class during the next year, and perhaps double that in the following year, say USAF officials. There are plans to establish a second flight training unit, possibly operated by the Air National Guard. But demands of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq will make it a slow process.