Counter Terror Expo round-upTrend: Manned-unmanned UAVs for battle, domestic surveillance

Published 13 February 2009

In both military and domestic missions, there are situations in which UAVs are preferable, and other situations in which manned aircraft are preferable (or even required); the solution: manned UAVs

UAVs have been assuming more and more military responsibilities in both intelligence gathering and operations. At a somewhat slower pace, UAVs have also been assuming more domestic responsibilities in law enforcement missions. In both military and domestic missions, there are situations in which UAVs are preferable, and other situations in which manned aircraft are preferable (or even required). Duncan Styles of Salisbury, U.K.-based DO Systems used the occasion of the Counter Terror Expo for a conversation with the Register about the use of UAVs in surveillance — and for elucidating why the best solution is an occasionally unmanned manned UAV cybercontrollable spyplane.

DO offers different products, including specialist electro-optical bits for customers such as the U.K.’s special forces and Apache attack-copter fleet. One of DO’s offerings has been the provision of Canadian Twin Star long-endurance light aircraft, carrying out surveillance missions from the British base at Basra in Iraq. As the wars in Southwest Asia have ground on, the number of patrolling UAVs has gone up and up.

This brings us to the problem: Lewis Page writes that the bandwidth required to transmit full-motion imagery back to control stations for analysis is massive, putting serious strain on available satellite resources. Thus, there has been a recent trend to purchase light civilian planes, fit them out with the same lightweight sensors used by the drones, and send them up with imagery analysts in the back (see the good discussion in Page, “U.S., U.K. Deploy Manned Unmanned Aircraft to Save Bandwidth”). “With the analysis done on board, much less bandwidth is needed to pass on the results to ground commanders — hence the popularity of ‘manned unmanned’ fleets delivered by initiatives such as the U.S. Project Liberty, or British use of Twin Star and King Air planes,” Page writes.

Bandwidth is not always a problem — for instance, when line-of-sight can be maintained between a ground station and aircraft overhead, thus avoiding the need for expensive and limited satellite communications. Styles told Page that in these situations, the pendulum often swings back in favor of a UAV because of its longer endurance and the fact that crews are not being risked.

Which brings us to the domestic use of UAVs. U.K. police and intelligence agencies find overhead imagery or intercept data very useful. Bandwidth is not an issue because you can have a ground station anywhere you like. The trouble: unmanned aircraft are not allowed to fly over most of Blighty, so here you want a pilot on board for legal reasons. This is also useful when sending an aircraft to or from an overseas warzone, as it must pass through many civil-regulated airspace on the way.

Styles told Page that the best of all worlds is the forthcoming Twin Star upgrade which will allow it to be flown manned or unmanned. Thus a legally required pilot can ride in it on trips to or from theaters abroad; backseater analysts can be carried if bandwidth is an issue; it can prowl the skies over the theater empty, or loiter above the Midlands back in the United kingdom with a legally mandated pilot aboard.

It makes the clearance process so much easier,” says Styles. DO Systems hope that U.K. security agencies such as the Counter Terrorism Command and MI5 might go for some optionally crewed Twin Stars to supplement existing Islander twin-engine spy planes, which are already occasionally operated for them above the mainland United Kingdom by the RAF