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Pilotless Drones Show Off At Farnborough Air Show

July 23, 2010

Unmanned drones, remote-controlled military aircraft designated to play a vital role in combat, took the spotlight at the Farnborough air show this week.

Aerospace manufacturers at Farnborough reported brisk sales last year because NATO forces in Afghanistan are already using unmanned aircrafts for intelligence gathering.

Companies and analysts said they expect sales of drones to slow less than in other defense aviation sections despite defense budgets worldwide being tightened due to fragile economies.

U.S. defense group Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, a high-altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), is a potential replacement for the venerable U-2 spy plane.

“The planned date (for U-2 decommissioning) is by 2012, but it is unlikely the U-2 will just drop dead. More likely there will be a draw-down,” Northrop Grumman’s Director of Business Development Ed Walby told AFP at the Farnborough show near London, a key get-together in the aviation world.

Northrop took its spot at the show after gathering up sales of $33.8 billion in 2009.

However, unmanned aircraft are expected to rack up about $3.5 billion in sales in the next 10 years.

Some manufacturers forecast that sales of unmanned aircrafts would remain buoyant despite the pressure governments are under to cut defense spending.

U.S. consultancy Forecast International’s senior unmanned systems analyst Larry Dickerson predicts the markets for UAV procurement will be worth about $18 billion by 2018.

“Western European defense budgets are under a lot of pressure,” said Paolo Carmassi, a leading executive at Honeywell Aerospace.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a reduction in hardware acquisition in the short term and this is something I think the entire industry has to be prepared for.”

However, a Boeing spokesman said he was far more positive about it.

“UAVs have always been in high demand and we expect the market to continue to grow even with the decrease in spending in the (US) Department of Defense,” he told AFP.

Flying at 60,000 feet, UAVs can look through a sandstorm and destroy unsuspecting targets with clinical precision.  This can take place while the pilot is nowhere near the aircraft.

However, industry experts still stress the need for a man in the cockpit.

“They don’t take over. Manned aircraft, at least for the next 40 years, will continue to dominate despite the progressive injection of remotely piloted vehicles in air forces around the world,” said Howard Wheeldon, a defense analyst with BGC partners.

Alan S. Colegrove, a senior official at US drone manufacturer AAI told AFP: “Most of the unmanned systems out there are not exactly unmanned, they are remotely controlled.”

The emergence of unmanned vehicles that carry out strike missions on empty targets is taking drones to another level.

The Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) are currently being used in conflict zones across Afghanistan.

“I think they are extremely important and here to stay,” said Wheeldon.

“They are already with us and playing a crucial role in Afghanistan and they played a role in Iraq. They will save lives and are a cheap form of defense fighting equipment.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the F-35 Joint Strike Force Fighter now in production, “may be the last combat aircraft the US Air Force will buy that carries a pilot,” signaling a paradigm shift in how the US plans to craft its 21st century battle strategy.

A drone manufacturer claimed that its ultra-light UAV powered by solar energy stayed in the air for seven days straight, setting a record.

QineiQ said its 74-foot long Zephyr, weighing just 110 pounds, flew over a U.S. military testing ground in Arizona.

Pictured here is the Global Hawk high-altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in flight. Credit: Northrop Grumman

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