Unmanned Warrior 2016

Video released by the Royal Navy looking back on Exercise: Unmanned Warrior 2016 which saw the extensive testing of semi- and fully-autonomous drone aircraft and vessels in various military scenarios.


Royal Navy begins Exercise: Unmanned Warrior

3-D printer drone UAV

3D-printed mini-UAV launches from RN ship during trials in August 2015. Exercise: Unmanned Warrior will build on these trials

The Royal Navy has begun a two-week military exercise devoted to the demonstration and testing of new unmanned systems. Having been several years in the making, the exercise will help define the service’s use of unmanned vehicles over the coming decades with a number of industry contracts expected upon its conclusion.

Among the industry products being tested is a new version of the Royal Navy’s current Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the ScanEagle which has been deployed from surface vessels in the surveillance role but will be phased out next year. Built by Insitu, a subdivision of Boeing, the ScanEagle was a military development of a commercial UAV designed for fish spotting use by trawler and fishing fleets in Alaska. It is highly portable being very small and is launched from a catapult allowing it to take off from the helicopter deck of a typical frigate. The new version the Royal Navy will be testing over the next two weeks will combine the range and endurance of the current ScaEagle with a significantly improved multi-sensor intelligence gathering capability.

Another fascinating type on test is the Leonardo Helicopters SW-4 Solo Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV)/Rotorcraft Unmanned Air System (RUAS). Based on the Polish PZL SW-4 light helicopter, the SW-4 Solo has been developed with funding from the UK and Italian defence ministries and will be used as a technology demonstrator during Unmanned Warrior. The aircraft will utilise a wide array of sensors to establish exceptional levels of situational awareness for either a pilot or a ground operator if operating in unmanned mode.

Despite being a Royal Navy affair, the exercise is being monitored with interest by several nations who have sent observation teams to the west of Scotland where the trails are being carried out. The Royal Navy has been somewhat slower than their Army or Royal Air Force comrades in embracing unmanned systems but in recent years has been making strides towards fully exploiting the benefits such systems afford the modern military. In August 2015 tests were even carried out from HMS Mersey with the University of Southampton involving a mini-UAV created using 3D printing.  

Should drones be allowed to carry out missions on their own?

Somewhere in the skies over Tajikistan, four of the most sophisticated US warplanes ever built are on a mission of the upmost importance; a warlord has captured some nuclear warheads and they need to be destroyed. Three of the planes are manned but one of them is an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle or UCAV; a drone! However, the pilots soon realise that if they do indeed attack then radioactive dust particles thrown in to the air from the explosion will rain down on a nearby village and then across the border in to Pakistan. The mission is scrubbed and the planes turn back to their aircraft carrier.

But the UCAV refuses the order and decides the mission is too important to be abandoned.

Going against its instructions the UCAV attacks the target thus destroying the warlord’s nuclear weapons but also irradiating hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not finished yet however and decides to attack another target. This time in Russia…

RAF Reaper drone UAV

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)

So goes the story in the 2005 action and science-fiction movie, Stealth. The film was a box office flop that was dismissed by critics but to many military observers around the world it did raise a question that had been largely dismissed except of course in science-fiction. Could we really develop weapon systems that can in-theory identify and attack a target without any human intervention and if so, should we?

The answer to the first question is undeniably, yes. The most cutting edge combat aircraft such as the US Army’s AH-64E Guardian attack helicopter or the RAF’s Typhoon FGR.4 have sensors so advanced that they can detect and identify a hostile target such as an enemy vehicle or aircraft from great distances and present the information to the pilot. The pilot then has to select what he deems to be the appropriate weapon to prosecute the target and can essentially allow the aircraft’s computers to carry out the attack. It would not be difficult therefore to design computer software to take over the decision-making process on how to attack what the aircraft’s sensors have detected.

But here’s the catch!

The aircraft’s computer systems identify a target by looking at the sensor data and trying to match that data with whatever information exists in its own digital memory. It knows what a T-55 tank is supposed to look like and if, for example, an infra-red image returns a similar vehicle then it will reason it is a T-55. A pilot however can look at the image and determine exactly what it is through logic and reasoning rather than relying solely on the data from the onboard sensors. It may very well be a T-55 tank but it could also be a truck whose image is distorted by it being crammed full of refugees. The drone maybe programmed to attack anything that looks like a T-55 but the pilot can take in to account the fact that the vehicle is travelling in a convoy of refugee vehicles and therefore less likely to be a tank or at the very least this warrants further investigation. Even if it is proven to be a tank the pilot can decide that attacking it is not worth the civilian loss of life and abort. Such an attack by an automatic drone where there would be heavy loss of civilian life by mistake would be a political and human disaster.

It is for fear of that very mistake being made by an autonomous drone that groups demanding greater international laws preventing fully autonomous weapon systems comes in to play. This movement flourished in the early 2000s as drones took centre stage in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and in 2009 the quite science-fiction sounding organisation, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) was founded. The committee is composed of experts in the fields of robotics and international law and aims to address what they view as the growing dangers of increased autonomous weapon systems.

In 2010, the committee issued a statement in Berlin, Germany outlining many of its recommendations on the restrictions of autonomous weapon systems such as UCAVs. These restrictions included limiting unmanned weapons’ ability to make any of the following decisions independently of human control;

  • The decision to kill or use lethal force against a human being.
  • The decision to use injurious or incapacitating force against a human being.
  • The decision to initiate combat or violent engagement between military units.
  • The decision to initiate war or warfare between states or against non-state actors.

In 2014, supporters of the committee’s Berlin statement felt they had won their biggest victory to date when on February 27th of that year the European Parliament voted 534-49 to ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons which enables attacks to be carried out without human intervention. The committee had wanted the restrictions to go further including limiting range and payload of all drones, even those under human control from the ground, but to this there was much stronger opposition from European governments many of whom such as France and the UK place great emphasis on them.

MQ-9 Reaper RAF Brimstone Hellfire missile UAV UCAV RPV

The MQ-9 Reaper RPV has carried out the bulk of RAF drone strikes in Iraq and Syria

Proponents of more sophisticated drones however, argue that no drone regardless of its sophistication is truly autonomous. A human decision has already been made to launch the drone against enemy forces and therefore the intention for the drone to kill has already been displayed before it even takes off. The autonomous drone would carry out the mission on behalf of its human commanders purely within the confines of its programming in the same way that a human can decide to fire a bullet at an enemy soldier; it’s true the human has no further control over the bullet but it is carrying out the human’s intent to kill. They also argue that a manned aircraft is theoretically a more unstable option because the human occupant is just as if not more fallible than an automated weapon system. A pilot can be prone to moral or psychological factors that may inhibit them from carrying out the mission even if the attack on the target is justified. Alternatively, a psychologically unbalanced pilot may have no regard for civilian lives whatsoever increasing the death toll on the ground.

If we were to consider a scenario whereby an air strike has been ordered on a terrorist weapons factory in Syria but from two perspectives; one of a manned aircraft and one of an autonomous drone. Both drone and pilot would carry out a risk assessment before deploying weapons which would look at potential threats to the aircraft and potential collateral damage to civilians. Once this assessment is complete the appropriate weapon would be selected and the attack carried out. Proponents of autonomous systems argue that the drone is safer because no attack would be carried out if the drone detected what it determined as civilians in the blast zone and being unable to violate its mission parameters would abort the mission. The human pilot on the other hand can still drop the weapon if he so chooses as could a human-controlled drone. Also, the more obvious concern with a manned aircraft is the risk to the pilot from enemy defences.

The problem of course is that a lot depends on the quality of the programming of the drone and its sensors. Just what kind of parameters should be programmed in to the drone to define civilians? There is even the risk that the drone could misinterpret hostile forces for civilians and not carry out the attack the result of which could be that weapons developed in the factory could be used against allied forces or even civilian targets in western cities. There are more basic moral concerns as well such as war appearing to become cleaner and therefore less repulsive – at least to the country that’s operating the autonomous drones – since bombing missions can be carried out without the risk of losing sons and daughters to enemy forces.

No one would argue that being able to defend your own country without the risk of losing the lives of your troops is attractive. Many of us in the UK remember the scenes of C-17s landing at RAF Brize Norton and coffins draped in the British flag being unloaded live on the BBC during the years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and no one wants to see that again. The political fallout of heavy casualties can affect an early withdrawal of troops even if the military objective has not yet been completed regardless of the wider consequences but could this bloodless type of war actually increase the chances of military conflict? The ICRAC argues that autonomous drones are taking away the human decision to initiate armed conflict because they operate on a set of restrictions limited to their own situation and ignorant of the wider scenario but most importantly are free of the implications of their actions unlike a human who could be prosecuted for illegally initiating combat. In this regard there is indeed a higher chance of conflict being unintentionally initiated with autonomous, weaponised drones and if this were to occur between two technologically sophisticated nations then it would only be a matter of time before the drones were defeated and lives would be lost as troops and manned aircraft/ships go in to battle.

Taranis UCAV UAV RPVIt’s the nightmare scenario that is driving the campaign to restrict truly autonomous drones. One of the most advanced drones currently in development is the UK’s BAE Systems Taranis (left); a high performance warplane that when development is complete will be able to conduct air defence and strike missions with equal prowess to that of a manned aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II but even this is semi-autonomous. It still requires human intervention to make decisions but beyond that the drone carries out the mission itself in the same way that an Air Marshall at a command centre has passed instructions to pilots in combat in the past. This balance of man and machine would appear to offer the best of both worlds; all the advantages of unmanned aircraft but retaining the human factor.

There is still one problem however.

The operation of even a semi-autonomous drone relies on communication between the drone and the command centre. Any wireless signal can be broken either through malfunction or enemy interruption. If a semi-autonomous drone was to lose contact with its command centre should it then be allowed carry out the mission on its own or should it be programmed to return to base? The latter would of course best appease the current international feelings on the subject but what of the aforementioned terrorist weapons factory scenario whereby a Taranis aborting the mission would result in civilian deaths in the UK from terrorist actions?

The fact of the matter is that as free-thinking human beings we are naturally suspicious of entirely automated weapon systems. No matter how well programmed or advanced a drone is there will always be a question hanging over whether or not we can trust it to carry out our military intentions exactly. It is also important that someone be accountable for the use of military force otherwise human life on the whole is devalued which would only lead to more suffering. One final point to make however is that human beings armed with guns have been responsible for more unintentional deaths in combat than any other weapon and for that fact alone we shouldn’t completely dismiss the advantages technology offers us in the decision making process. They have the potential, if the programming is sophisticated enough, to significantly reduce collateral damage in combat. One thing is for sure; drones/UCAVs/RPVs use by western forces will only increase in the years to come and consequently so will the debate.





Army transfers Watchkeeper UAVs to Joint Helicopter Command

Watchkeeper British Army drone UAV

A report published by the Jane’s Information Group said that the Army is looking at integrating the Watchkeeper program in to Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) as a way of smoothing the troubled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’s (UAV) entry in to service. The Army’s fleet of 32 Watchkeeper drones could operate under JHC as early as August of this year. Although they will be operated under a new command the aircraft will still be operated by 32 and 47 Regiments of the Royal Artillery based at Larkhill.

JHC is a tri-service organisation which consolidates the UK’s battlefield military helicopters in to a single, harmonious force. It is currently based in Andover.

The plans do not include the British Army’s smaller tactical UAVs however such as the Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk Mk. 3 and Prox Dynamics Black Hornet both of which will remain under the command of 1 Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade (1 ISR Bde) headquartered at Upavon, Wiltshire.

The Watchkeeper WK450 is built in the UK by UAV Tactical Systems (U-TacS); a joint effort between the Israeli company Elbit Systems and the Thales group. It is a long-endurance UAV tailored for the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) role and based on the Israeli Elbit Hermes 450 UAV.

The program has been marred by repeated development delays exacerbated by organisational problems which meant that despite over 30 aircraft being delivered by December 2015 there were just 4 military pilots cleared to operate it. The program was also the target of a number of protests in the UK at Elbit’s facilities by groups opposed to Israeli actions against Palestinians. The change of command is hoped to help shake off its troubled past. It has already served nominally but quite successfully in Afghanistan.




The First Drones

First Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

In the 21st century, military aviation is increasingly making use of unmanned aircraft. They are known by a number of names with the American term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) being the most common while in Britain they are often referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) but to the public at large they are known simply as drones. It is hard to escape these fascinating aircraft as reports of their exploits in the global war on terror regularly make it on to the evening news. Traditionally, these drones have been used primarily in the reconnaissance role but it might surprise many to know that unmanned military aviation for intelligence gathering purposes is not a new concept and actually dates back to the 19th century.

The story of these early drones begins with the invention of the first practical photograph taken by a camera in 1816 by Nicéphore Niépce which revolutionised mankind’s ability to record history. While the early photographs were of poor quality they were enough to encourage others to work on perfecting the practice and improving the quality much to the disdain of the artisan community who felt that photographs threatened the livelihoods of painters. The poor quality of early photographs meant that the British military at large were relatively slow in showing an interest in the new recording technique but a few of its ranks did have more forethought.

One of McCosh's wartime photographs (nam.ac.uk)

One of McCosh’s wartime photographs (nam.ac.uk)

John McCosh was a Scottish born Army Surgeon serving with the Bengal Army when in 1848 the Second Anglo-Sikh War broke out. During the course of the conflict McCosh took several photographs using a quarter plate camera that produced small prints of 10cm x 8cm. Many of his photographs were mere portraits of officers or the local land but were the first photographs taken in the course of an armed conflict. While historically significant these photographs were of little official use other than for the upper class officers to boast of their accomplishments.

All that began to change however when the Crimean War broke out less than six years later. In 1854 an amateur photographer named Gilbert Elliot was commissioned by the British government to photograph Russian fortifications along the Wingo Sound in the Baltic Sea. In March of that year he set up his camera aboard the British warship Hecla and took numerous photographs of the Russian defences which were praised for their clarity given that they were taken aboard a moving warship. Sadly, none of these photographs have survived to the present day.

Thanks to these early pioneers the British military began to take the idea of photography for reconnaissance purposes more seriously. At the same time British Army officers observed developments in the United States regarding aerial photography from an observation balloon. In 1860 the American James W. Black took what is considered to be the first aerial photograph in history when he photographed Boston Common while suspended from an air balloon at an altitude of 1200ft. It was an impressive feat considering the laborious process of taking a picture back then that required the image to remain in the viewfinder for sometimes as many as a few minutes. Worse still, Black had to operate the camera and relay instructions back down to his ground team under cover and in complete darkness as any light on the plate that held the image would fade it. He also had to return to Earth and process the image within 20 minutes or it would fade naturally and the image would be lost.

James W Black Boston Aerial Photograph

One of Black’s photographs. The military applications are obvious (commons.wikimedia)

Throughout the 1860s pioneers like Black persisted and while still a largely impractical affair the world at large was getting it’s first real bird’s eye views of the world. As the 1870s dawned some began to look at the whole process and began to contemplate the idea of sending up a balloon fitted with a camera that could be controlled from the ground. This had numerous advantages such as needing smaller balloons and of course being much safer and easier than having someone suspended underneath them. The proponents of such balloons argued that they could be very useful for spying on the enemy and gathering intelligence on enemy positions, a fact which had largely been proven in the Crimea by Elliot.

Unfortunately controlling the mechanism for the camera proved extremely problematic. A number of efforts were made to remotely control the camera action but almost all failed. Some attempted to use a series of pulleys attached to the camera handle while others used mechanical devices to remotely control the action all of which failed. Then in 1877 the British photographer and inventor, Walter B. Woodbury, concocted a potentially revolutionary system involving electrical currents to instruct the camera when to take the photograph.

Having patented his idea he then presented his invention to the British Army. Woodbury’s idea was to have the operators move the balloon and its tether close to the enemy’s position and then begin the process of inflation. The camera would be set up underneath on a gimbal-like device invented by a Frenchman named Nadar to stabilise it and then when it was ready for deployment the brake on the tether would be released and the balloon would go upwards to a satisfactory height where the enemy was visible. The operator could then send a series of electrical pulses up to the balloon via an electric cable to trigger the photographic process. This is essentially the same operating concept as modern battlefield UAVs.

Unfortunately for Woodbury the system proved unreliable. Often there was not enough electrical current to reach the balloon at the end of the wire or the signal became interrupted resulting in half developed photographs if any were made at all. Had he corrected this problem then the British Army may have taken more of an interest but in the end they were unconvinced and despite the promise of the system Woodbury abandoned development of his invention.

New camera technology was arriving all the time and soon operating one or even two cameras by a single man in a balloon became more practical and he could take several photographs before being winched back down. Another advantage of manned balloons was that the operator could focus the camera on to a target whereas with unmanned balloons there was no way to guarantee that the camera was looking at the area of interest. This spelled the end of unmanned balloons for photographic reconnaissance although there would be later experiments in Russia and France but none came to fruition. Nevertheless these experiments produced unmanned aircraft that are truly the spiritual ancestors of today’s drones.

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)

NEWS: RAF Reaper UAVs to be replaced by 20 new Protector UAVs

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s belief in the priority of drones and special forces in the war against Islamic State appears to be coming to fruition as the UK government reveals its plans to acquire up to 20 advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) known as Protector to replace the current fleet of 10 General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers. The Reaper drones (known as Remotely Piloted Vehicles or RPVs in British military parlance) have been at the forefront of the RAF’s war against Islamic State terrorists carrying out both reconnaissance and attack functions.

David Cameron made the announcement speaking to the Telegraph newspaper earlier this week but offered little more information on just what Protector is since no known system under that title exists although some defence analysts have speculated that it will be a version of the Israeli Hermes series (possibly the Hermes 900) which the British government has expressed interest in for quite some time. Some news sources have speculated that “Protector” is a blanket term for a British development of the Reaper Extended Range (ER) model of the current Reaper-B operated by the RAF but with a higher degree of British systems to ease the reliance on American support in the Reaper’s operation. It has also been speculated that Protector could be a British version of the General Atomic’s jet-powered derivative of the Reaper known as the Avenger.

With the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) not expected to be published until November further details are unlikely to be released until then.

NEWS: 3D printed UAV launched off Royal Navy warship

3-D printer drone UAV

The SULSA launches from HMS Mersey (MoD)

A team of engineers from the University of Southampton have successfully launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the airframe of which was constructed by the revolutionary process of 3D printing, from the bow of River-class OPV HMS Mersey P283. The staff from the university aimed to demonstrate the potential use of lightweight drones at sea by flying their Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA) a drone which weighs just 3kg and has a wing-span of 1.5 metres off the vessel. After being launched from the Royal Navy patrol vessel on station off the Dorset coast the small drone flew totally autonomously on a pre-programmed route before landing on Chesil Beach.

The exercise was led by the team from the University of Southampton under the name Project Triangle which among other things looks at applications for 3D printing in aviation and in 2011 they tested the world’s first entirely “printed” aircraft. 3D printers utilise laser sintered nylon which is then fused into solid structures by a laser beam. Theoretically the process can make any shaped object such as a fuselage, wings and components for a small UAV provided that the material and the diagram for construction are in place in the printer.

Officials from the Royal Navy remarked that they were interested in conceptual applications of unmanned and highly automated systems and that tests such as this go a long way to fully exploring that area. However from a military stand point the process of 3D printing has significant benefits particularly in the area of logistics. If a warship was able to manufacture temporary spares or replacement equipment then it would be less reliant on support ships and increase its time in operational theatres. One can only imagine how much easier the 1982 Falklands campaign would have been with this kind of technology when the Royal Navy were literally operating thousands of miles from the nearest port. Admittedly the technology is still in its infancy but no doubt military planners and think-tanks are already exploring the possibilities.