Future UAVs must multitask, Air Force says

Next-generation drones, such as the MQ-X, will need to do more than gather intelligence and carry weapons

The Defense Department is reassessing its view of unmanned aerial vehicles – a key component of modern combat operations – and deciding what the military needs from UAVs beyond their traditional use as a platform to gather intelligence and fire weapons. 

The next-generation UAVs will need to take on additional duties including cargo transport, refueling and possible medical applications, and they will need to be interoperable with different platforms, users and military services, DOD officials said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement summit on UAVs this week in Vienna, Va.

“UAVs are 99 percent [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] today. In the future, they need to be multipurpose – ISR and [target acquisition], aerial network layer, attack capabilities, sustainment and cargo,” said Glenn Rizzi, deputy director at the Army Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence.

The military should concentrate on developing modular, plug-and-play aircraft built on standardized interfaces – one aircraft for multiple missions, similar frames for one platform, according to Col. Dale Fridley, director of the Air Force Unmanned Aerial Systems Task Force.

“We need to define interoperable architecture. And right now we’re working with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] to define what that interface will look like,” Fridley said. He added that capabilities for “sense-and-avoid” aircraft detection technology, interoperable command and control, multi-access controls and enhanced human-system interfaces are among the most important short-term enablers in developing next-generation UAVs.

Fridley highlighted the MQ-X unmanned aerial system, the follow-on to the existing MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, as the “embodiment of the flight plan.”

Officials at the UAV summit compared the versatile needs of the next-generation UAV to the flexibility of today’s C-130.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, also pointed to the potential of the MQ-X, saying it will need to have the right size, weight and power to handle a combination of various payloads and missions.

Deptula also called for increased durability and survivability for upcoming UAV designs, cautioning “the current environment [UAVs operate in] is permissive. We need to be prepared for a contested and denied environment.”

The Air Force is working to incorporate the next-gen requirements into designs of the MQ-X. Col. Bruce Emig, chief of the irregular warfare division of the Air Combat Command, said his department is working with Air Force Materiel Command, Air Mobility Command and Air Force Special Operations Command to establish requirements for the new UAV designs.

Emig said the Air Force intends to have the requirements finalized in time to be included in its 2014 Program Objective Memorandum.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

Reader Comments

Wed, May 5, 2010

Well the above article does state some issues that need to be seriously thought about. The fact that most UAV's are very specialized needs to be looked at. It would save both time and money if they looked at integrating and working with all ov the other military research groups and worked together to find out what they need which i believe is to make a single UAV that can do all of the nessecary functions such as air strikes, reconissance, cargo transports/drop offs, and be able to have the ability to communicate between more than one operator so that their missions are more effecient and syncronized

Mon, May 3, 2010 ed hennessy united states

Interesting article - have been connected with the UAV/UAS Initiative, since its inception with DARPA development programs in the early 90's. Have seen the progress, maturation and evolution of these platforms. Would seem with the Military's desire to extend their use - lessons could be learned and transferred from Manned Vehicle experience. In an indirect way, they have gone thru a similar evolutionary process. Years ago, the aim was to obsolete manned, attack fighters and other craft with Unmanned Vehicles - was to happen fast - reality set-in and it became clear that this was no simple leap. Figure Unmanned Vehicles (of any type) are going to have to get smarter (AI-wise)to reach the level of functionality and interoperabiity that the Military envisions. To-date, they have all been mission-specific and narrowly focused. Also, have a hard time seeing the C-130 Transport analogy taking shape with Unmanned Vehicles in my lifetime, however always commend and support the visionaries in the DOD complex - eventually, they will get it right.

Mon, May 3, 2010

All great UAV ideas but this scope creep will never get the technology into the hands of the user. Do some risk analysis on what is out there now and fix those things at the high end of the risk scale. Fix the live data feeds from the aircraft first. Even if the payload is not a UAV problem, someone in managment needs to take a holistic look at what problem you're trying to solve not dreaming up UAV solutions and looking around for a problem to solve with a robot.

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