July 7, 2009:
The U.S. Air Force has accepted the fact that unmanned aircraft are the future, and are now working on how to make it happen. The belief is that, in the next three or four decades, most, or all, aircraft will be UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles.)
The big problem is flight safety. Current UAVs don't have the same situational awareness as manned aircraft. A pilot who can see what's out there, and "feel" the aircraft, while UAVs are dangerously deficient in this department. But much progress is being made. For larger UAVs like the one ton Predator, you can place sensors around the aircraft, that give the operator better situational awareness than a manned aircraft. There are also anti-collision systems using radars normally carried by larger commercial aircraft. Over the next few years, the first of these situational awareness systems are going up for tests, and will be on the market quickly if the tests work out. Non-military UAV users are particularly keen on getting more "aware" UAVs that they can operate outside of military air space. Not just for police or border patrol work, but for performing land use and raw materials exploration.
Once the situational awareness problem is attended to, the air force sees the possibility of turning transports, tankers, electronic warfare and even AWACS aircraft into UAVs. The air force is still reluctant to confront UAV fighters, but software engineers who have looked into that, believe that a silicon fighter pilot will be able to defeat a manned fighter in a decade or so. The air force has to at least keep an eye on this area of research and provide some support. That's because a robotic fighter pilot is a possibility, and if someone else puts one into service first, and the damn thing works, the U.S. Air Force does not want to spend a lot of time catching up.