Unmanned aerial vehicles have become such an integral part of missions that it is difficult to remember a time when the U.S. military relied solely on manned aircraft. As the U.S. Navy prepares to launch into a similar brave new world where crewless platforms propel warfighters out of harm's way, the service faces challenges beyond the technical hurdles. Some issues can be resolved by industry; others will require a worldwide national-level consensus that will change the maritime domain with ramifications not seen since the dawn of modern shipbuilding.
Soldiers operating in built-up neighborhoods can receive more timely and complete information about enemy forces by harnessing low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles. An autonomous system emerging from development in a far-reaching program coordinates delivery of video from unmanned aerial platforms and other military reconnaissance assets.
Diminutive but potent, a versatile unmanned micro air vehicle leaps tall buildings to look for rooftop shooters or hovers and stares through windows to search within for hidden enemies. New applications continually tumble forth for a 14-pound ducted fan vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. This nascent platform rapidly is being recognized for its important platoon-level infantry and cavalry reconnaissance capabilities.
A demonstration technology program underway is developing U.S. military weapons that can travel at greater supersonic speeds. The Revolutionary Approach to Time-critical Long Range Strike, or RATTLRS, system will expand high-speed flight capabilities and improve performance for expendable supersonic vehicles.
Recent flights of the Spider-Lion fuel-cell-powered unmanned aerial vehicle have shed light on the potential for deploying fuel-cell technologies in the future. Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory designed the Spider-Lion, and while the aircraft itself is not intended as a tactical device, it will serve as a high-impact research platform for testing fuel-cell technology. The two successful flights mark the first time a fuel-cell-powered unmanned aerial vehicle has flown for several hours.
A close U.S. ally is focusing its unmanned systems development on homeland security. Israel has a history of adopting innovative technologies to suit its strategic needs, and its armed forces were among the first to develop and adopt unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and electronic warfare operations. The nation's aerospace industry has become adept at creating a variety of unmanned air, ground and sea platforms to meet changing requirements and to fill new roles.
Small and lightweight loitering cruise missiles with pinpoint precision are playing a deadly battlefield hide and seek in all weather conditions against hard-to-find mobile enemies. Armed with highly lethal warheads, a family of new weapons is emerging from development for both U.S. Army and Air Force applications. Moreover, these weapons hold the potential to significantly alter warfare.