The future of the U.S. military looks a bit like a child's toy glider.
Known as the Switchblade, the high-tech mini-plane built by Monrovia, Calif.-based contractor AeroVironment can be packed in a tube that weighs less than four pounds. Pull it out and its wings, about a foot long, snap into place. Throw it, and its motor engages, setting it to fly a pre-programmed route or a path guided by remote control.
Like AeroVironment's older gadgets, the Switchblade can stream video feeds from color or infrared cameras to its operator, making it a deft spy plane. But this aerial robot has another trick: It can become a guided missile with an explosive payload — used for, say, attacking an enemy sniper.
AeroVironment's remote-control attack plane may be small, but it represents a big shift taking place in the U.S. military: Today's defense robotics are more focused on killing and less dependent on humans than ever before.
A report issued last March by the Defense Advanced Resources Projects Agency laid out a road map for the next 25 years for the Pentagon's war bots, including goals like removing soldiers from a third of the Army's operational ground vehicles by 2015. For air vehicles, those goals are even more ambitious: One-third of the military's air-based strike force will be unmanned by 2010, according to the DARPA report. "The age of the unmanned military is upon us," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.
The Air Force is well on its way to fulfilling DARPA's goals. In 2008, Reapers and Predators, the Air Force's two primary remote-controlled vehicles, will spend almost 120,000 hours in the air on reconnaissance and intelligence missions, up from just over 80,000 hours last year and less than 5,000 in 2001.
Those unmanned aircraft, each armed with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs, are attacking more targets than ever before, while their pilots sit in the safer venue of Creech Air Force Base in Las Vegas. In 2007, Predators and Reapers launched 128 missiles and bombs — about twice as many as in 2005. In the first four months of 2008, unmanned drones were on track to beat that record, having already launched 47 missiles and bombs.
Despite several reports of civilian deaths in unmanned air strikes by the Air Force, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, Air Force officials insist that the robotic strikes go through the same "kill-chain" — the procedure of checking and double-checking targets with human observers — as manned air strikes. "We track the target, we watch it and we make sure we know exactly what we're taking out," says Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick. "It doesn't matter whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned — the decision is the same."
Some military observers are posing a different controversial question: Why do so many unmanned drones end up in pieces on the ground? More than a third of the 182 Predators deployed by the Air Force have crashed in combat or other operations, according to Air Force statistics.
The Lexington Institute's Loren Thompson says those mishaps usually result from a simple break in the line-of-sight connection between a plane and the satellite that controls it — often when one of the aircraft's own wings maneuvers into the path of the signal. "We have repeated problems with [unmanned aerial vehicles] that cut through their own uplink to the pilot, and the consequences aren't pretty," he says. "The moment you break that tether, a UAV becomes a flying chunk of metal."
General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator and the Reaper, argues that its later models have more backup systems to prevent those momentary losses of control. In fact, only one of the U.S.' 19 Reapers — the next generation of drone to follow the Predator — have crashed. The Air Force's Major Jonathan Songer points out that many of the Predator mishaps occured early in the program, when the unmanned drones were still prototypes.
But Sanger also blames what he calls "human factors." Unmanned vehicle pilots fly longer hours than manned vehicle pilots, often leading to fatigue, and they're forced to deal with complex controls without the normal sensory feedback of being in a cockpit. "Pilots no longer have the audible noise or that seat-of-the-pants feeling," Sanger says. "That can decrease their ability to sense how well the engine is running."
The Army's solution? Even more automation. It's deploying another General Atomics plane known as the Sky Warrior, which takes a greater degree of the plane's control out of the hands of humans. The Sky Warrior's automatic takeoff and landing system can put a plane on a runway "plus or minus one foot," says one Department of Defense official who asked not to be named.
He argues the Army's approach, leaving the majority of the piloting to the plane's automatic systems, avoids accidents and saves resources that the Air Force wastes training human pilots. "We don't use a stick and rudder. You just look at a screen and click, and it does what you tell it to," the official says. "Why pay for a pilot to go to college and flight school when you can use an 18- or 19-year-old guy from basic training?"
On the ground, that degree of automation hasn't yet become practical. In November, DARPA put street-level robots to the test in its Urban Challenge, a race of 12 autonomous cars through simulated city streets populated by obstacle cars. Though several cars performed nearly flawlessly, only half of the entrants finished the event. TerraMax, a 12-ton Oshkosh military truck fitted with laser sensors and global positioning equipment, nearly plowed into a concrete pillar and was disqualified early in the race.
But in the air, where obstacles are far fewer, fully robotic vehicles are already a reality. Northrup Grumman, for instance, signed a deal last year with the Navy to begin supplying it with an autonomous helicopter known as the Fire Scout. Though some versions of the helicopter may eventually be equipped with an array of missiles, the Fire Scout is for now planned as a reconnaissance vehicle — role where entire missions, including taking off and landing on aircraft carriers, can be accomplished with just a few keystrokes.
"If you can open a laptop and move a mouse," says Northrup Grumman spokesperson George Guerra, "then you can pilot this vehicle."