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UAV Auto Take-off and Landing Could Save Serious Money

by John Reed on November 12, 2010

 An MQ-9 Reaper UAV

When we hear military leaders talk about the need to automate elements of Unmanned Aerial Systems we often think in terms of the manpower-intesnive intelligence collection side of things or of one pilot/sensor operator crew controlling multiple aircraft. However, another must-have item in reducing UAV manpower is automatic take-off and landing technology, according to a senior U.S. Air Force official.

Auto take-off and landing will allow UAVs to deploy around the world without bringing their own launch-sand recovery teams and equipment (such as a trailer containing a UAVs ground cockpit along with communications links), Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Air Force’s top requirements officer, said during a breakfast with reporters in Washington last week.

Automated technology is being looked at as a way to cut operating costs for UAVs and increase the number of drones available for use around the world. Air Force officials routinely say that the number one limiting factor in the amount of UAVs deployed is the lack of trained aircrews. Combatant commanders around the world can’t wait to get their hands on more UAVs, but until more crews are ready the vast majority of drones will be dedicated to the skies over the Middle East.

Cutting the launch and recovery elements could free up a serious number of crews to fly the planes on actual missions from stateside bases.  Also, given the fact that the number one expense Pentagon officials say they need to get under control are personnel costs, you can bet military planners are looking at this as a way of reining in spending.

– John Reed

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Marcase November 12, 2010 at 1:01 pm

The US Army Gray Eagle variant of the Predator family already has auto-land capability. It's not new, just has trouble finding enthusiastic support in the USAF pilot community.


blight November 12, 2010 at 1:05 pm

I guess to the fighter jocks auto landing isn't manly or something.

Wonder if this kind of thing would help for manned craft as well?


Wildcard November 12, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Wasn't the RN playing with automated landing on F35B' and RN carriers? I recall viewing simulations and there being the possibility of this system being developed.


Musson November 12, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Developing new abilities for this bird is not going to save money. That is a red herring.


William C. November 12, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Exactly, you still need guys to maintain them, load up the armaments, and even just ensure they don't crash into each other while taxing around an airfield. And I imagine when commanding them all the way from the United States there is a higher risk of losing your connection to the UAV.


bystander November 12, 2010 at 5:43 pm

@ prometheusgonewild:

They are talking ground-based aircrew here (pilots & sensor operators); no mention of eliminating the maintenance crews. I trust that the minute they find robots capable of the task, they'll replace them too.


Byron Skinner November 12, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Good Afternoon Folks,

Not mentioned in the article, but may well be a factor is that most of the accidents that Air Force pilots are having with the MQ-9 Reaper are on take offs and landings. The major inflight problems are flying into mountains and running out of fuel. Perhaps Low on Fuel and Pull Up Mountain ahead should be on the AF pilots screen.

Interesting the US Army’s “Warrior” program with RQ-1 soon to be MQ-1′s Predators both in training and in while in Afghanistan that are flown by “enlisted pilots” (E-4′s-E-5′s-E-6′s) has a better safety record then the AF’s officer fighter jocks doing a two year tour at Cheech AFB outside Las Vegas while wailing for a slot to open up with the manned aircraft.


Byron Skinner


Hunter78 November 12, 2010 at 9:11 pm

The thesis is so sensible, I am amazed anyone is arguing against it. Computerized controls are already implicit in the concept of a UAV. The computer power to make intelligent decisions is insignificant compared to the weight of the vehicle. What you want to minimize is heavy communications between vehicle and command. If you take take-off, landing, maybe routine target recognition discussions out of the airwaves, and make them internal to the vehicle, you can make craft to command communications very sparse, and therefore hideable.


prometheusgonewild November 12, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Thanks for clarifying. I get it now:)


Daniel O Buchholz November 12, 2010 at 10:48 pm

AF is never going to admit it. Meanwhile all the UAV operators in the Army are enlisted Soldiers. UAV's are already making them seriously nervous (threatening the cult of the flight suit), to tolerate EM flying aircraft? Inconceivable.


STemplar November 13, 2010 at 12:59 am

It was a hurdle to even get the USAF to actually count the UAVs as deployed aircraft, they didn't even want to accept that until recently. I don't UAVs are anywhere near ready to replace pilots in all roles. I do think they are, or will be shortly, able to replace them in a lot of roles though. When you wanna talk cost savings and skyrocketing employee benefits, like there is any more comparison needed if you could dramatically slash the officer corps of the USAF.


Sanem November 13, 2010 at 5:47 am

not to worry: as the F-35 goes the F-22 way and budgets continue to shrink, a fighter/airframe gap will develop, and unmanned systems will be forced down the throat of air forces around the world, for the best (obviously fans of manned aircraft don't have their friends or family flying into SAM and flak, because "unmanned aircraft can't possibly replace manned aircraft, so you need to die for your country. no, not because we'd rather see you die than risk our careers…")


Sanem November 13, 2010 at 5:54 am

on topic, civilian airplanes have had auto-land capability since 1964 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autoland

and the Global Hawk can take off, fly around the world and land without a single human intervention

give a UAV the exact gps location of an airstrip, and he'll land on it better than any human pilot can. drones don't flinch

but never mind landing, it's the flying that really bugs me: a computer can fly gps waypoints no problem, so why do all current aircraft need a pilot? just have the sensor operator keep an eye out on the flight to its target area, and once there have it fly automated circles, while one operator checks the flight data on multiple drones


EU__ November 13, 2010 at 6:51 am

why the hell isn't that done already (for those drones that don't have it yet)?
it's a no-brainer and most damaged drones until now were due to inorrect landing (it's hard to land watching your plane from the side of the runway, i suppose).


STemplar November 13, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Pointing out there needs to be work done on autolanding capabilities doesn't eliminate it as a worth goal, it simply points out the obvious. If we had it, we would have already implemented it. We would already have the X-47 deployed on carriers if these systems were ready for prime time. This really isn't a discussion about the state of the research or reliability of the existing systems. It is about the undeniable institutional resistance the USAF has demonstrated where UAVs are concerned, with this being just one facet of that mind set.

In regards to officers being more responsible or accountable, that is OCS drivel. I was in, I dealt with both officers and enlisted. The amount of responsibility and accountability didn't have a thing to do with the jewelry on someone's collar. I found it more beneficial to my own personal ability to keep breathing to judge each person based on that, than what I should expect from a given rank.


helotaxi November 13, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I'm not addressing capacity when I speak of responsibility or accountability. I'm referring to law. It all comes down to authority to take certain actions and make certain decisions as outlined by law.

I also did not mean to imply that autoland systems would not be a worthy addition if their reliability were vastly improved to the point of being genuinely automatic. I simply meant that the current systems are a farce. The amount of money spent to realize the "savings" from such a system would be staggering. So much so that to suggest such a system as a "cost saving" measure is a complete joke akin to spending your way out of debt.


blight November 14, 2010 at 9:01 am

"It isn't capable of making decisions only running code"

As if human decision making couldn't be rendered down into a programming language? I imagine the problem is that nobody's put the investment into Autoland in rugged conditions (probably because a peacetime military is unlikely to experience as many problems with miserable landing conditions?)


AF Chief November 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

When the USAF purchased the KC-10A Extender aircraft, they had the manufacturer disable the auto-land capability of the autopilot.

Somone needs to disable the undue influence of the aviators from the acquisition process.


CW3 Snookie November 15, 2010 at 2:10 pm

The German Luftwaffe used E-5's to fly the F-104 Starfighter (Widowmaker) in the 60's……we stole their helmets, vehicles and pistol caliber…what the hey – let's try that too!


William C. November 14, 2010 at 12:15 am

Byron no USAF personnel are asking to go back to F-4 Phantoms and century series fighters either.


chaos0xomega November 16, 2010 at 11:02 am

Errr… I wouldn't say that. An upgraded F-4 would do pretty well in a situation like today's (although F-15E's easily do the job better). They are cheap, reliable machines that can get there, do the mission, and get out. Whats more is that they have a crew of two, meaning the pilot can focus on flying and the CSO can focus on putting warheads on foreheads.

In fact, some of the proposed "Super Phantom's" were interesting to say the least, the potential to be on-par, if not better than the 15s and 18s we have now.


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