Unmanned aircraft – more than giant model airplanes


MUCH has been heard about unmanned aircraft or ‘drones’ recently, but not many know these futuristic planes have been around for decades. Here I explore the past and present of drones.

IN simple terms, a Drone is a remote controlled miniature flying machine, including rotor craft, that comes in various sizes, which come with a wing span from less than six inches to over 20 feet.

They are made from carbon fibre and polycarbonates, (much like home builds) and are used both in military and civilian roles. Their correct name is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles but the USAF sometimes refer to them as Remotely Piloted Aircraft.

It is widely known the US military use them for everything including assassinations, air combat, spying and ground attack.

The civilian ones are used for more mundane surveillance tasks such as inspecting above ground pipe lines, police assistance with traffic and crowd control etc.

The ‘drone’ was first created in 1946 in UK, and by the 60s UK and Australia got involved in a Drone called the Jindivik which was regularly tested at the Woomera Range in Australia.

In the early 70s Monarch Airlines dedicated its only freighter, affectionately known as Charlie Fox, to regularly transport this top secret device to Australia and back.

I well recall being told by the MI5 chaperon that I was to stop sitting on the packing case, whilst I waited for the crew to arrive at the aircraft, one night at Luton.

Across the Atlantic the Americans were using Lockheed U2 aircraft to spy on Russia, but in 1960 the Russians succeeded in shooting one down and capturing Gary Powers, the pilot.

The Americans immediately escalated their drone programme, and now have by far the most advanced fleet in the world. The American-operated drones are flown by pilots operating out of a relatively small mobile control room.

Two further crew members are also required to operate the various electronic equipment including navigation, reconnaissance, weapons and other sophisticated role equipment.

These crews, safely tucked away in their control rooms, are located in Florida and Texas. The later being the CIA base for the spy operation including the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth that was lost in Iran recently.

The drones are always taken off and landed by the pilot in the States but can by handed over to a more locally situated control crew to carry out the mission designated to that drone. Missions can last for up to 30 hours.

There is little that a drone cannot do compared with a manned flying machine, in fact it does most tasks better than its manned relation.

However there is always a requirement to increase the weight and there for the payload of certain types of drones.

At present the Americans are working on a machine that will have twin gas turbine engines and weigh in excess of 40 tones. The size of un manned flying machines will soon reach that of the Boeing 737 and this might generate great interest from certain ‘low fare’ carriers.

We have the technology, we’ve just got to find the passengers!

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