The trend had been emerging before the American war in Afghanistan began in , but was greatly accelerated by the use of UAVs in that conflict.
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The idea of designing a UAV that could remain in the air for a long time has been around for decades, but only became an operational reality in the 21st century. The idea of using UAVs as a cheaper alternative to satellites for atmospheric research, earth and weather observation, and particularly communications goes back at least to the late s, with conceptual studies focused on UAVs with conventional propulsion, or new forms of propulsion using microwave beamed power or photovoltaic solar cells.
Raytheon suggested what would now be described as a UAV using beamed power, flying at an altitude of 15 kilometers 9. The helicopter carried a rectifying antenna or " rectenna " array incorporating thousands of diodes to convert the microwave beam into useful electrical power. The demonstration received a good deal of publicity, but nothing came of it, since enthusiasm for Earth satellites was very high and the rectenna system was heavy and inefficient. However, in the s, NASA became interested in beamed power for space applications, and, in , published a design for a much lighter and cheaper rectenna system.
The NASA rectenna was made of a thin plastic film, with dipole antennas and receiving circuits embedded in its surface. The UAV required watts, and was able to obtain this level of power from the 6 to 12 kilowatt microwave beam. In the s, new attention was focused on aircraft propelled by solar power. Solar photovoltaic PV cells, are not very efficient, and the amount of power provided by the Sun over a unit area is relatively modest. A solar-powered aircraft must be lightly built to allow low-powered electric motors to get it off the ground.
Such aircraft had been developed in the competition for the Kremer Prize for human-powered flight. In the early s, Dr. Paul B. MacCready and his AeroVironment company took a fresh look at the challenge, and came up with an unorthodox aircraft, the " Gossamer Condor ", to win the Kremer Prize on 23 August In , Dupont Corporation backed AeroVironment in an attempt to build a solar-powered piloted aircraft that could fly from Paris, France to England.
The first prototype, the "Gossamer Penguin", was fragile and not very airworthy, but led to a better aircraft, the " Solar Challenger ".
A solar-powered UAV could in principle stay aloft indefinitely, as long as it had a power-storage system to keep it flying at night. The aerodynamics of such an aircraft were challenging, since to reach high altitudes it had to be much lighter per unit area of wing surface than the Solar Challenger, and finding an energy storage system with the necessary high capacity and light weight was troublesome as well.
The main wing spar was made of carbon fiber composite tubing, with ribs made of styrofoam and braced with spruce and Kevlar, and covered with thin Mylar plastic film. The wing was light but remarkably strong. The wing was built in five segments of equal span. Two gondolas hung from the center segment, which carried payload, radio control and telemetry electronics, and other gear.
The gondolas also provided the landing gear. Each gondola had dual baby-buggy wheels in front and a bicycle wheel in back for landing gear. There were two motors on the center wing segment, two motors on each inner wing segment, and one motor on each outer wing segment. The aircraft's total weight was about kilograms pounds , with about a tenth of that being payload. The flights were conducted using radio control and battery power, as the aircraft had not been fitted with solar cells.
HALSOL's aerodynamics were validated, but the investigation led to the conclusion that neither PV cell nor energy storage technology were mature enough to make the idea practical for the time being.
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HALSOL was put into storage, and as it turned out, would be resurrected for greater glories later, as discussed later. For the moment, though, it remained a complete secret. Amber was designed by a team under Abraham Karem of Leading Systems. Amber was 4. The wing was mounted on a short pylon above the fuselage. The cruise missile version of Amber would discard the wing when it made its final dive on a target.
Amber had an inverted v-tail , which would prove a popular configuration for a pusher UAV, since it protected the propeller during takeoff and landing. The airframe was made of plastic and composite materials, mostly Kevlar , and the UAV had retractable stiltlike tricycle landing gear to ensure propeller clearance. Amber had a flight endurance of 38 hours or more. The initial contract specified three "Basic Amber" A cruise missile prototypes and three B reconnaissance prototypes. Initial flights were in November , with long-endurance flights the next year.
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Up to this time, Amber was a deep secret, but in details of the program were released. Amber was only one of a number of different US UAV programs in planning at the time, and the US Congress became impatient with what was perceived as confusion and duplication of effort. Congress ordered a consolidation of UAV programs in , freezing funding until June , when the centralized Joint Program Office for UAV development, mentioned earlier, was established. Seven Amber Is were built, and were used in evaluations along with Basic Ambers through However, funding for reconnaissance assets was being cut, and in the Amber program was killed.
LSI was faced with bankruptcy, and was bought out by General Atomics in , who would later develop the Amber into an operational platform, the MQ-1 Predator .
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Requests had been made in for the aircraft to be used in search and rescue operations following Hurricane Katrina , but because there was no FAA authorization in place at the time, the assets were not used. The Predator's infrared camera with digitally enhanced zoom has the capability of identifying the heat signature of a human body from an altitude of 10, feet, making the aircraft an ideal search and rescue tool.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, "After distinguished service in war zones in recent years, unmanned planes are hitting turbulence as they battle to join airliners and weekend pilots in America's civilian skies. Drones face regulatory, safety and technological hurdles — even though demand for them is burgeoning.
Government agencies want them for disaster relief, border surveillance and wildfire fighting, while private companies hope to one day use drones for a wide variety of tasks, such as inspecting pipelines and spraying pesticides on farms. Recreational drones became popular in the United States in , with approximately one million expected to be sold by the end of the year.
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The Canadian government wants to buy at least three high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicles in what could be an attempt to salvage its Arctic sovereignty ambitions. The Canadian government wants to modify the existing Global Hawk drone, which can operate at 20, metres, to meet the rigours of flying in Canada's Far North. Such a revolution is unfolding today. Artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, ubiquitous sensors, advanced manufacturing, and quantum science will transform warfare as radically as the technologies that consumed Bloch.
And yet the U. This is especially troubling because Washington has been voicing the same need for change, and failing to deliver it, ever since officials at the U. The idea of a future military revolution became discredited amid nearly two decades of war after and has been further damaged by reductions in defense spending since But along. Career incentives will need to be re-engineered. New organizational cultures will need to be cultivated to replace those that are threatened or destroyed.
Outdated equipment may be repurposed or made available to partner nations, rather than simply scrapped. The key to navigating such a disruptive process is to be proactive, thoughtful, and — most importantly — strategic. Divorces are always disruptive, but they can — if managed — be purposeful.
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