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UAVs: Technology at War

The recently signed contract between the United States Air Force Research Laboratories and TriQuint Semiconduct (NASDAQ: TQNT) is just an example of the positive trend of technological improvements in the field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), aircraft that fly with no onboard crew. Even though UAVs are an expanding sector, much of the general public is not yet familiar with the machines.

Despite a tendency to conceive UAVs as a single product, there are currently at least two hundred different models of military UAVs, as well as other models for civilian purposes. In general terms, military UAVs have different dimensions and different technical characteristics; they perform different tasks and, last but not least, are available at different prices.

The smallest UAVs get into the air through manual take-off, with soldiers throwing the aerial vehicles into the air and then piloting them via remote control, while the biggest ones require something similar to a traditional runway to take off and land, and the set up of a ground installation for aircraft control purposes. At the same time, while some UAVs work as drones, i.e. with a ground-based crew flying it, others simply need to be configured and will perform the required tasks autonomously.

The main field of employment of UAVs is that of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Those that are equipped with electro-optical/infra red (EO/IR) systems can transmit real-time high-quality images both in daytime and during night operations. Using UAVs for ISR missions means that the main purposes they are used for are the collection of information, the monitoring of enemy’ activities, or the scanning of a specific area for potential threats.

Some UAV models can actually carry missiles and be utilized for combat purposes, and cases have been reported of combat missions performed by UAVs in Pakistan, Yemen, and in the Gaza Strip.

One of the most famous and used UAV is the MQ-1 Predator A, adopted, along with other models, by the Air Forces of the United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey and the United States (who, alone, is reported to have roughly 200 Predators). A Predator is a 2,250 pounds-heavy aircraft with a wingspan of about 50 feet.

A Predator, which in the military jargon is actually considered a “system”, as the aircraft itself needs other ground and satellite components in order to be operative, costs about $ 4,5 millions, and falls within the category of the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs, this meaning it can fly up to 25,000 feet and has an endurance of more than 24 hours. Predator is one of the UAVs that can perform combat tasks, by being equipped with two air-to-surface or air-to-air missiles.

Currently, one of the biggest and most expensive UAVs in production is the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) aircraft. With a wingspan of almost 120 feet, the Global Hawk can reach an altitude of 65,000 feet and fly at 400 miles per hour for 36 hours. It can provide reconnaissance coverage on 40,000 square nautical miles (as much as the entire area covered by Ireland) per day. A single aircraft costs about $ 60 millions, and the United States is currently the only country owning and flying Global Hawks.

As a field of business and development, that of UAVs enjoys an important knowledge spill-over both from the aviation industry and from the many technological improvements coming from the civilian sector. Better image quality, enhancements in communication systems, and the obvious advantages of miniaturization led military industry to move from the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, a fundamental tool in the Cold War confrontation, to the current development of Micro-UAVs (MAVs), unmanned aerial vehicles with a wingspan of 6 inches or less and advanced ISR capabilities.

About Francesco F. Milan

Francesco Milan is a PhD student at the War Studies department at King's College, London. Originally from Italy, he is a specialist in Turkish defence issues.

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