Warplanes: July 28, 2005


The U.S. Air Force, largely for cultural reasons, has helped develop, and used successfully, a completely robotic aircraft. The FPASS (Force Protection Airborne Surveillance System) has been in use for over two years, mainly in Iraq, and has proved very successful. The seven pound mini-UAV is also called Desert Hawk. Battery powered, FPASS can stay in the air for an hour, flying a route specified by the operator and using onboard GPS and flight software for guidance. The UAV can be equipped with daylight or night (heat imaging) cameras. Everything seen on each flight is recorded to a mini-cassette, and simultaneously transmitted back to the operator, who views the video on a laptop computer. The UAV cruises at about 80 kilometers an hour and at an altitude of 300-500 feet. The UAV can operate up to ten kilometers from its base station. The UAV is launched using a large elastic rope (a bungee cord, basically) and lands by just coming in low and turning off it's motor. The UAV is made of plastic and is basically an air force version of the U.S. Marine Corps developed Dragon Eye.. 

The operators do not fly FPASS, but they can change it's flight pattern while it's flying a mission, or command it to just circle a location. An onboard computer handles all the details of flying correctly and not spinning out of control. The reason for now allowing the operator to manually fly FPASS has to do with the air force tradition of only officers flying aircraft. The larger air force UAVs, for example, are operated in the air by people on the ground, and these operators must be officers, and pilots. Early in World War II, the air force had sergeants who were pilots, but the brass decided that this would not do, and declared that henceforth, all pilots must be officers and college graduates. It was quickly pointed out that there not enough college graduates available, so that requirement was dropped. But the requirement for officers to be pilots stayed.

All was well until UAVs came along. The other services had enlisted troops, usually sergeants, to operate these aircraft and all was well. But not in the air force. When it was realized that there was a need for the ultra-small UAVs (like FPASS), and that it would really be, well, embarrassing to have officers flying what amounted to beefed up hobby aircraft, it was decided to try for an autopilot solution. Autopilots had been in use for decades and were a mature technology. This worked out very well, and now sergeants could be allowed to operate these aircraft because the lowly sergeants would not be flying the aircraft, but simply programming the FPASS to fly to certain spots, along a certain route, or stop and circle as needed. The FPASS thus became a truly robotic aircraft. You told it what to do, and the FPASS went off and did it. 

After one mission, the operator can put in a fresh set of batteries and launch the FPASS aircraft again. An FPASS "detachment" consists of two sergeants and 520 pounds of waterproof carrying cases containing six UAVs, a laptop computer, communications equipment and a spare parts and repair kit. The UAV, once the parts are snapped together, has a 52 inch wingspan and is 32 inches long. New operators can be trained, on the job, in about a week. With about a dozen personnel, the six UAVs in one detachment can provide 24/7 coverage for a base. A civilian version of FPASS is being sold, mainly to police departments (for stakeouts and general security), security firms and utility companies (for checking pipelines and electrical transmission lines.)




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