Drones; Past, Present and Future

Drone is a very generic term and can potentially be used to describe any form of remotely operated or autonomous vehicle.  These vehicles can operate on land, in the sea or in the air.  It is, however, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which are currently the most controversial, partly due to their proliferation and partly due to their use in offensive operations in recent conflicts in the Middle East.  

The term UAV covers all unmanned aerial vehicles from remote controlled aircraft so popular with hobbyists to artificially intelligent flying robots capable of independent thought and action, although these are far beyond the reach of current technology and belong to the realm of science fiction.  

The Royal Air Force operates MQ-9 Reapers, which are a remotely piloted airborne system (RPAS). These aircraft do not have a pilot in the cockpit but they do have an crew who fly them from control stations on the ground.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.

Reapers have been in service since 2007 and are currently operated by 39 Squadron and 13 Squadron.  Reapers are primarily used by the RAF for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering although they are capable of being armed for ground attack purposes.  Interestingly, as Reapers do not have sufficient sense and avoid technology to prevent collisions with other aircraft they are not authorised to fly in the UK except in designated, controlled areas.

RAF Reaper crews are currently trained alongside their United States Air Force (USAF) counterparts at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  Many RAF Reaper pilots are also qualified to fly fast jet aircraft such as Typhoon or Tornado.  RAF Reaper crews operate in shifts of two to three hours long as the aircraft is capable of spending up to 40 hours airborne. This method of working helps crews 'to remain alert'. The amount of time that a Reaper is able to remain airborne is one of the main advantages they have over manned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms as they provide more information about the situation on the ground thus allowing better informed decisions to be made and minimising the risk of civilian casualties should an attack be required.  

Although the use of drones for reconnaissance and air to ground attack operations is relatively recent; drones have been used by the RAF as aerial targets since before the Second World War.

One of the most notable examples of a unmanned aerial target is the Queen Bee.

De Havilland Queen Bee (K8640 66) of Pilotless Aircraft Unit, in flight, Henlow, 1938

The Queen Bee was in many ways similar to a Tiger Moth and could be flown with or without a pilot in the cockpit.  It was used to improve the accuracy of anti-aircraft fire until it was declared obsolete in 1946.  Although with modern training simulations there is no longer a need for the use of drones as aerial targets they do have other potential uses which could be explored in the future.     

The main focus of military drone development is on producing a remotely piloted airborne system which unlike Reaper is capable of operating in a defended airspace. This aircraft would need to have stealth characteristics in order to avoid being detected by defending aircraft or anti-aircraft systems.

It would still need to be able to offer the same or better flying time as Reaper and produce reconnaissance and surveillance data of equal if not better quality. Currently BAe Systems are leading on an experimental project to create a remotely piloted airborne system which can undertake sustained surveillance and reconnaissance as well as marking potential targets, acting as a deterrent and carrying out strikes against hostile forces.  The concept aircraft and testing platform for this project is called Taranis.     

BAe Systems Taranis.

Other possible roles for drones are also being discussed.  USAF scientists are reportedly considering the idea that F-35 pilots will be able to control a small group or swarm of drones from their cockpits to allow them to carry a wider range of sensors, fuel, weapons or even cargo.  These theoretical drones would have to be much more sophisticated than those currently in existence as they would need to process their data before it was sent to the F-35 pilot and be able to perform basic functions such as collision avoidance without any input from the human controller as flying several different aircraft all at once is likely to beyond the capability of a human being.

F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Another idea being considered by USAF scientists is for swarms of small drones each equipped with sensors and able to co-ordinate with each other would fly into defended airspace and due the large number of them it would not matter if some of them were intercepted or destroyed as they remainder would still be able to carry out the reconnaissance task.  These drones swarms could potentially also be used to confuse RADAR and other detection systems as there would be so many small signals for the system to identify and track. Again, these drones would need to be very different and more sophisticated than those currently in use and the sensors they would need to be equipped with much smaller than those currently available.    

It is not just the military who can make use of drones; there are plenty of useful civilian roles they could perform.  Amazon are already experimenting with drones for package delivery but there are many more possible roles for drones.  Drones can go into environments where people cannot survive and as such could play a vital role in dealing with natural disasters by monitoring the situation and/or helping to remedy it.  They could be used to help extinguish wildfires from the air without putting human lives at risk or to identify and recover victims of flooding. They could also be used for conservation and scientific purposes such as monitoring habitat changes, tracking endangered species or surveying potential archaeological sites.  Drones may also be useful to organisations such as the police for crowd control or to border security forces to monitor any attempts to enter a country outside of normal channels.  The possibilities are extensive.  

You will have the opportunity to find out more about RAF drones and other innovations when our new RAF Centenary exhibitions open at our London site in 2018. 

Belinda Day : Assistant Curator
About the Author

Belinda Day : Assistant Curator

I have been part of the Curatorial team at the Royal Air Force Museum, London, since 2012, having previously worked as part of the Access and Learning team. My role as an assistant curator includes answering enquiries from the public, academics and Royal Air Force personnel, receiving and cataloguing the kind donations of historical material given to us, writing and developing exhibitions and facilitating access to the archive collections for staff and visitors alike.

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