Friday, March 15, 2013

Drones: New U.S. drone to see everything, everywhere

Vyacheslav Shpakovsky

U.S. agency DARPA has launched a new program called Node. The purpose of the program is to develop small-sized aircraft capable of carrying up to 600 pounds of payload. The projected range of the aircraft is from 600 to 900 nautical miles from the point of takeoff. The size of the new UAV will fit the size of smallest vessels.

Our civilization is becoming more and more perfect, but it does not bring peace and calmness to mankind. In the 21st century, people continue to wage wars, trying to catch the enemy off guard and attack the enemy in a most unexpected way. One must admit, though, that many military developments are used for peaceful purposes.

Unfortunately, even most advanced technologies can not help people all the time and when it is needed. Helicopters are limited in their range and flight time because they require a lot of power to fly. Aircraft, both manned and unmanned, can fly farther and longer, but they need either aircraft carriers or airfields with hard runways that would be long enough for them to land. The creation or deployment of both requires significant financial costs, not to mention an array of diplomatic issues.

To overcome these difficulties and expand opportunities for observing land from air, U.S. agency DARPA launched the program called Node. The goal of the program is to develop small-sized aerial vehicle (UAV) for long-term flights.

Interestingly, the program provides for the use of light commercial vessels as a base for the new aircraft. Such vessels are plentiful, which will, of course, significantly lower operation costs.

The project of the future aircraft was named after the sea bird known for its endurance in the sky. Many of its species are able to migrate for thousands of miles every year. It will be possible to place the new UAV on board most small-sized vessels, including fishing seiners and even private yachts. Its operating range will then be completely comparable to that of carrier-based aircraft.

It will be possible not only to launch the aircraft, but also to take it back to the mother ship to be used again. "It's like having a falcon return to the arm of any person equipped to receive it, instead of to the same static perch every time," said Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager said.

This detail is very important, because about 98 percent of the globe lies within 900 nautical miles from the shoreline of the ocean. Enabling small vessels capable of launching such aircraft on demand will greatly enhance our knowledge of the situation wherever that may be. It will certainly increase the ability to quickly and efficiently learn about everything that happens in hotspots.

To inform potential customers of the project, DARPA plans to hold a news conference on Tuesday, March 20, 2013 at the Conference Centre of the agency. For the time being, we can only say that the new unmanned aircraft will carry 600 pounds of payload. The range will make up from 600 to 900 nautical miles from the ship.

As for technical requirements, they include the following conditions:

- The development of a reliable launch and recovery of the system to allow a very large number of small ships to have this UAV on board. Moreover, it will be possible to launch the aircraft even during a storm;

- The vehicle should have the range, reliability and payload comparable to those of new ground-based drones. At the same time, it should meet the requirements for use in the marine environment (high corrosion resistance is required);

- Requirements for operation and maintenance should be as simple as possible. The works to redesign the construction of vessels should be minimal;

- The transport (and the launch) container for the aircraft should be compact, so that it can easily fit into the limited space on board the ship;

DARPA plans to complete the development of the new UAV in three stages during about 40 months. Some may think that DARPA experts unnecessarily complicate everything. There is space reconnaissance, there are AWACS aircraft that can easily detect even small groups of armed men from a distance of hundreds of kilometers.

However, a flight of an AWACS plane costs a lot of money, and it is impossible to see everything through a satellite. As for the new program, a small seiner or a container carrier will be able to launch its drone when needed to study the required object and obtain all necessary information about it in real time. Most importantly, it will be possible to deliver the information immediately to someone who needs it.