By Philip Ewing
America was crashing into war amid a geopolitical crisis.
Troops were preparing for action in a foreign land. So military commanders eager for an edge in the battlespace turned for help to a new and untested remotely operated surveillance aircraft.
It was called “a kite.”
The year was 1898, and William A. Eddy, of Bayonne, N.J. – described by the New York Times in a July 1 story as “the expert kite flyer” – thought he could rig his kites to relay signals among warships. And that wasn’t all.
“Inventor Eddy said this afternoon that in sixty days he could take 1,000 photographs from midair of Havana or any part of the coast of Cuba,” as The Times wrote.
The Navy brought him in. Eddy deployed along with American forces on their way to Cuba for the Spanish-American War and ultimately flew one of the world’s first intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. He secured a camera onto one of his big kites with a long cable release, which trailed down to the surface along with the kite’s guidelines. When a photographer on an old-style camera pulled the cable, it triggered the shutter and captured a photo.
So configured, and with the right breeze, Eddy and supporting sailors could reel out his kite and capture photographs from high above hostile terrain.
“Many of Eddy's aerial photographs — the first wartime surveillance photos in history — provided critical information to American troops about their adversaries' positions and fortifications,” as PBS’s program “Nova” later concluded.
If remotely operated aircraft have evolved somewhat since then, many reasons they’re valuable have not. They provide decision-makers with high-quality intelligence almost instantly – without the risk and cost of a human crew aboard the aircraft.
And, fortunately for U.S. and allied commanders, they stopped depending entirely on the wind.
By the 1920s, the Royal Navy’s “Queen Bee,” a wooden biplane that used onboard pneumatic controls to execute radio guidance from its operator, spurred great interest in its prospective use as a guided weapon against enemy ships. It also served as a valuable training target for Royal Navy anti-aircraft gunners -- although it did not always reveal what Their Lordships hoped:
“It was not uncommon for a Queen Bee to parade up and down in front of an entire warship squadron for over an hour while they pounded away at it, only to be commanded to land without a scratch,” as Canada’s Vintage Wings recounted.
Military applications progressed and became more important over time: American remotely operated aircraft targeted German V-1 rocket sites in World War II; new transsonic surveillance aircraft inspected national security targets in denied airspace; better, more modern targets evolved from the Queen Bee, helping allied crews hone their skills into the missile era.
So the U.S. government’s support for remotely operated systems was already well founded by the 1980s, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – the influential office that helped spur the creation of the Internet, among other innovations – sought one that could loiter for longer than ever.
Persistence, as this quality came to be called, is another feature of remotely operated systems that human-crewed aircraft can’t match. The efforts spurred by DARPA led to flights that lasted more than 30 hours, in some cases, and ultimately resulted in an aircraft that changed the world: The Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
Variants of this aircraft had been flying for several years by the time the United States was confronted with another crisis: the need to respond to the 9/11 terror attacks, 20 years ago this September. The Predator proved ideally suited for the mission requirements of the 21st century and forever reshaped the way American and allied forces operate.
The U.S. military had used remotely operated systems in combat before, but never so much, in so many ways, and as so much a part of the way they worked.
A Predator could scout ahead of a friendly convoy on the ground and warn it of an ambush ahead. Or even better, the aircraft’s operators could take action themselves to neutralize a threat -- a story deftly told in the new book “Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves.” A Predator didn’t even need to release ordnance to be an essential part of operations against terrorists or insurgents. It might track a vehicle and tie it and its occupants together with other intelligence to help piece together a broader mosaic.
By the time of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Predators and their newer siblings, the MQ-9 Reaper, were an inextricable part of intelligence and combat. Coalition commanders’ demand for the aircraft only intensified as their capabilities improved and they became indispensable in confirming targets in the complex fight.
At one point, a certain number of hours of full-motion video provided by the Predator and Reaper became necessary to establish the patterns of life that suggested a potential target was tied to the Islamic State. The remotely piloted aircraft were the keys that unlocked action.
Other users around the world took notice, including those outside of militaries. The Predator and Reaper took on roles as diverse as helping with hurricane and flood recovery, contributing to the fight against wildfires in the Western United States, and tracking monk seals and other wildlife in Hawaii.
But if remotely piloted aircraft have made themselves irreplaceable, they also can’t stop evolving.
One reason is that not every combat environment will be as friendly as the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. and allied aircraft enjoyed supremacy. For another, the jobs that commanders need done grow more complex by the year.
The good news is that GA-ASI is keeping ahead of those needs. Our newest technologies enable capabilities that no remotely piloted aircraft ever had before. They’re joining the hunt for hostile submarines under the ocean’s surface and releasing defensive countermeasures to protect themselves from enemy fire, just like a human-crewed fighter.
The MQ-9B SkyGuardian and variants also can integrate into a nation’s civil airspace in a way no remotely operated aircraft ever could before, vastly improving the way users can add these aircraft to their surveillance or other operations. The ability to fly the MQ-9B in and among normal British air traffic was one reason why it was selected to be the new platform of choice by the Royal Air Force: the Protector.
Our remotely piloted aircraft can even accommodate their own, small unmanned aerial systems, often known simply as SUAS. If the past 20 years has brought the golden age of large UAS, the coming 20 years will represent the evolution of their little brothers.
For example, GA-ASI has developed one game-changing SUAS known as Sparrowhawk, which an aircraft such as the MQ-9 can carry under its wing as it might a traditional payload like a sensor pod or a fuel tank. But when the MQ-9 reaches an area of interest on a mission, it can do something few remotely operated aircraft have ever done – launch the smaller UAS and then recover it in mid-flight.
The smaller, nimbler, swifter Sparrowhawk is difficult for an adversary to spot as it sprints low along its route. It does, via connection to its big brother, what remotely operated aircraft have been doing all along: Sends back vital information about what’s taking place, without the cost and risk of involving a human aircrew.
The Sparrowhawk might surveil an area and turn back to rendezvous with the aircraft that launched it. In a safe area, well away from hostile warplanes or anti-air systems, the larger UAS can snatch the Sparrowhawk out of the sky and continue its mission.
Once Sparrowhawk is secure, the larger aircraft can return to base – or, relying on its ability to stay aloft for many hours, continue its patrol and even launch another Sparrowhawk elsewhere later from its other wing station.
Integrating smaller aircraft with larger unmanned aircraft is possible in part thanks to advances in autonomy and multi-aircraft control pioneered by GA-ASI. As ever, the absence of human pilots on these aircraft means commanders can consider using them in ways they would never employ traditional fighters.
A SkyGuardian could release a Sparrowhawk with the intention of searching for hostile anti-air systems without needing to worry about the safety of the pilot. Indeed, an air commander’s goal might be to send Sparrowhawk to probe a denied environment so that it could report back about the radar or other systems that powered on or detected it – where they were, what type, and how many.
Sparrowhawk could respond with an electronic attack of its own to clear the way for other aircraft coming in behind it, jamming an enemy radar to deny its ability to sense a strike package passing through the area. Or the small aircraft could support missions focused on the suppression of enemy air defenses.
Small UAS will take the concept of unmanned aerial combat to new levels, with new capabilities like our Sparrowhawk and others leading the way in distributed aerial networking and joint, all-domain command and control. But SUAS won’t only help friendly forces deal with threats on the ground.
Another small system in the works by GA-ASI will help clear the way through the skies. LongShot, being developed under a contract from DARPA, will launch from larger UAS or human-crewed aircraft and charge into hostile airspace armed with its own air-to-air missiles, able to fire on enemy targets if it were so commanded.
LongShot gives commanders options, just as all remotely operated systems always have. It could initiate a fighter sweep ahead of a strike wave without putting a human crew in danger, or it could join an attack alongside the vanguard with human-crewed warplanes.
LongShot also could give legacy aircraft such as bombers a potent new anti-air capability. Imagine if a friendly bomber were en route during a combat mission and allied battle networks detected the approach of hostile fighters. LongShot would let the bomber crew go on offense against the threat without the need for its own escorts or the retasking of friendly fighters, preserving its ability to service its targets as planned.
Airpower, naval and ground warfighters doubtlessly will find other new ways to incorporate these new systems into their missions, as troops always have with novel weapons that give them more options and flexibility.
Those pilots, air crews, squadrons and other units are the latest links in a chain that goes back decades. From unpowered contraptions of wood and fabric to sophisticated warplanes that can launch and recover their own smaller squadrons, remotely piloted aircraft have made incredible progress since the days of William Eddy and his camera kites. And with stealthier and advanced new programs in the works, including some in support of the Air Force’s MQ-Next concept, there’s a great deal more to come.
What won’t change is their utility and indispensability from today’s and tomorrow’s military, security, governance and environmental protection operations, with an ever-growing suite of missions beyond those for which they were originally designed.
That, too, is something Eddy himself discovered following his return to New Jersey, when he found that thieves had stolen a batch of ice cream from his back porch.
As one local history records, Eddy reeled out his aerial surveillance kite and captured some images of the area: “One shot showed two men eating ice cream under a tree near Newark Bay. Eddy said he later found his ice cream box under the tree.”