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Flying without flyers

On Monday night I watched a Channel 4 TV documentary about the battle between Lockheed and Boeing for the contract to build the next US jet fighter. Winner takes all, and Lockheed won with this. It’s all completely new stuff to me, although I’m sure Dale Amon has been all over this for years.

At the end this show there was a tantalising reference to unmanned flight, in which, it just so happens, one of the companies that is doing best is … Boeing. Ever since I’ve been on the lookout for uses for this kind of aircraft, besides searching out and bombing enemies on a battlefield I mean. I’m sure Dale Amon has been all over that question as well, but to me, it’s a new one. What can you do with these gismos? War, yes, but what else?

(By the way, I take it there are people on the ground paying attention to these things when they’re in the air, and that they don’t genuinely and completely fly themselves. Tell me this is true.)

In the small hours of Wednesday morning I found myself watching another TV documentary, this time about how they’re using swarms of these unmanned planes to make better weather forecasts. And here’s something else which was apparently made possible by unmanned flight, this time in the form of a movie about birds.

Any other offers? There have to be lots of other brilliant things you can do with flying robots. One obvious application springs to mind, which is unmanned cargo planes full of stuff which, at a pinch, you can stand to lose.

And what about stuff you can’t afford to lose? How about “unmanned” passenger planes? After all, there are unmanned passenger trains now. We have them in London, on the Docklands Light Railway. So why not an unmanned 747? I can of course well imagine why not, but seriously, could that ever help at all?

19 comments to Flying without flyers

  • Well, it’s a bit extreme, but you could run unannounced live-fire exercises to test the effectiveness of the procedures and staff monitoring and enforcing “No Fly Zones.” Just sent a pilotless aircraft with a dead radio and obscured cockpit towards a nuclear power plant, the White House, or Disneyland. Then, watch the various departments to see how they deal with escalating the situation until, ultimately, the plane is shot down.

    If it isn’t, well, I guess you have to update the procedures or get new staff.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    That’s excellent. Just the kind of thing I was hoping for.

    And remember everybody, if your suggestion is silly, no one will care, or fire you, or ban you from commenting here ever again, or anything like that.

    Another possible one occurs to me, which is that unmanned airplanes might make it a whole lot easier to get unmanned thingies, or even manned thingies, into space from earth, and then back again. A robot flies the first bit where there’s still air, then it becomes a space rocket and off you go, and then back home in reverse. No need for all the clobber associated with having a airplane pilot on board. That kind of thing. Dale, where are you?

  • I didn’t see the documentary, but James Fallows wrote a good article for the Atlantic last year on the Lockheed/Boeing fly off. (I blogged about it at the time here). That was actually the second stage of the selection process. There were originally three bidders, Lockheed, Boeing, and McDonnell Douglas. In the first round, McDonnell Douglas were eliminated. This made McDonnell Douglas (which was mainly a military contractor, and made the F-15 and F/A-18, both of which will be replaced by new generations of aircraft) no longer viable, and McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing soon afterwards, and some of McDonnell Douglas’ best engineers went and worked on the Boeing bid after that. This seems to have been the point, as at that time defence spending was dropping and the Pentagon wanted to reduce the number of defence contractors it dealt with.

    (And Dale certainly knows more about this than any of us).

  • Dale Amon

    Brian: I’m on the road with a failed hard drive on my laptop, using it as a CD booted thin client to read email :-/

    At moment I’m working PR for the Space Development conference in San Jose. Opening is with Jill Tarter from SETI this Friday. There was to be a NASA Ames tour, but the alert level went up and Ames cancelled all tours.

    Anyone in the area, come on down: for info, look at the ISDC 2003 web site

    And yes, the competition for the new fighter as been going on for ages and I think there was a press conference on the decision to give it to Lockmart many months ago. If Lockheed hadn’t gotten it, I’m afraid the USAF would have been on the way to sole sourcing…

  • Larry

    Is it rude to mention that there is no way the US can afford to actually build all of the military aircraft now under design.

    We’re already in the cycle of reduce the quantity planned, watch the cost/craft rise, scream in pain, repeat.

    But no matter how absurd our military aircraft purchases, they pale into relative sanity compared to our submarine construction program, billions to build craft with no conceivable use.

    Spiraling costs and inadequate accounting/management have created the Defense Death Spiral. See the Defense and the National Interest web site for more info: http://www.d-n-i.net

  • The Economist ran a good article on pilotless craft, including the feasibility of pilotless cargo and passenger aircraft in its Christmas issue.

    Ooh look, here’s the link:


  • Jacob

    On of the most important possible civilian uses of UAV (unmanned airborne vehicle) is monitoring nuclear sites and facilities (like power stations) to detect early any radioctive leakage. They could also be used in case of emergency, to monitor the level of radiation, where it may be too dangerous for men to go.

    As to the unmanned 747 – you would have to load it with robot passengers too (not only pilots) for it to be unmanned.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    I’m no expert, but it makes sense to me that a seriously well armed country like the USA should have more military kit in development than could possibly all become the real thing. Of course a lot of it will remain moonshine, but times change and at any point policy makers need to be able to whistle stuff into production in a few months that a year back might have seemed utterly implausible and unnecessary, thus elbowing other equally plausible schemes into the dustbin of yet more development followed eventually by cancellation. I’ll bet Gulf War 2 alone supplies plenty of examples of that exact syndrome.

    In general, technologists of everything are always, at any particular point, working on lots of misses as well as those few eventual hits. Their problem is they don’t know which will be which, so they half bake lots of cakes.

    There are, I’m sure, lots of complaints about the USA’s military policies to be made, but half-developing more kit than finally gets used doesn’t strike me as one of them. That just seems to me like commonsense.

  • T. Hartin

    “But no matter how absurd our military aircraft purchases, they pale into relative sanity compared to our submarine construction program, billions to build craft with no conceivable use.”

    I disagree. The ballistic subs are, of course, an essential part of the American nuclear arsenal. As are many attack subs which can fire cruise missiles, which can in turn be nuclear-tipped. For a variety of reasons, nuclear-armed subs are a very good way to field your nuclear deterrent. You can argue about whether we need a nuclear deterrent, although you won’t convince me, and if we have one, sub deployment is the way to go.

    The attack subs, in addition to being missile platforms and intelligence platforms, are also indispensable for maintaining US naval superiority. The current generation of attack subs will be absolute death on any surface fleet and critical to any strategic engagement that the US might be drawn into. For example, in wargaming a PRC invasion of Taiwan, the only possible way to beat the PRC is by “flooding the zone” with attack subs, which are capable of sinking anything that tries to float from the mainland to Taiwan.

    Attack subs are also an indispensable part of the screen that protects our carriers.

    The US is historically a naval power, and is rediscovering itself in this role. In many ways, submarines render surface fleets obsolete. I say keep the subs!

  • Devilbunny

    Aside from their strategic value, there is another reason we keep building subs: so that we have a continuous supply of engineers and shipyard workers who know how to build them. We might not, strictly speaking, need a new sub. But we do need 25-year-old mechanical engineers who learn how the details work, so that in 15 years they can lay out the propulsion systems, and that in 30 they can manage a sub design project. Aircraft carriers follow a similar logic. All of our carriers come from only one shipyard – Newport News – and the subs are built by either Newport News or Electric Boat.

    I suspect that constantly developing aircraft is done for the same reason.

  • We still have a little way to go with remote-controlled aircraft. Landing them safely is still a major challenge.

    The Air Force and Navy have several initiatives going about the use of unpiloted craft for various non-ordnance-delivery missions. For obvious reasons, they’d much rather not risk living men if an unmanned craft can do the job. However, retrieving those craft is still important, as 1) there are security considerations, and 2) they range from expensive to murderously expensive. So the problem of bringing them back and landing them is receiving a lot of study.

  • Larry

    I agree that aggressive R&D is OK, but these are development programs — with the goal of production. Costs go parabolic at this stage. Cancelling programs in mid-development — like the Crusader gun platform, or perhaps the Osprey VTOL, flushes away large quantities of national wealth.

    Naval superiority against who? There are no blue-water fleets to challenge ours. And no candidates to build any for many years. Perhaps China in 10-20 years.

    If someone did challenge us, they probably would do so using 4GW methods. Perhaps small stealth ships or underwater strike craft, which our Navy is not configued to cope.

    Attack subs are wildly over-build platforms to launch cruises or gather intelligence. They can do these missions, but other surface or underwater platforms could do so at a fraction of the cost.

    Choices. The USA is not making them, and money is running out.

  • Henry

    I don’t know if there are any video gamers here, but have any of you played Starcraft? I ask because one of the races has a flying carrier unit that has a compliment of small robotic drone fighters. Perhaps as we start to develop unmanned flight we could move in that direction for a force-projection option. Not feasible now, of course, but it would be pretty damn cool.

  • Byron

    Discover has a good article on unmanned military planes:


    The first half looks at the current Global Hawk recon robot plane, and the second half at the upcoming UCAV from Boeing. UCAV will be used initially as an Air-to-ground attack plane, and later perhaps as an Air superiority fighter to replace the F-22. Due to enter service in 2008, UCAV will truly pilot itself with only supervision from a ground-control station. Eg, there is no human pilot flying it from the ground.

  • Mike James

    It will take a lot of convincing to get ground combat units to work with unmanned CAS. If it happens at all, expect it to take a couple of decades, at least. Fratricide was the biggest killer of our people in the Iraqi Campaign, I believe. Imagine what happens if an unmanned air strike kills some of our people in the future.

    As regards robot airliners, which one of you good Samizdatistas will calmly stroll down the jetway into an aircraft manned only with cabin attendants who have had a 10 or 20 hour course on “What To Do If Mr. Software Falls Off The Perch In The Washington D.C. Air Defense Identification Zone”?

    For the role of “Mr. Software”, think of Microsoft as being the low bidder.

  • Mike James

    Well, I should check these things. Fratricide was not the most significant worry for our people. It was a significant worry, but not the major cause of casualties.

    But don’t expect robot airliners or TacAir any time soon.

  • saedavis

    UAV’s may have secondary purposes (like blowing things up or forcasting weather), but their primary purpose is military intel.
    Later… Stu

  • saedavis

    UAV’s may have secondary purposes (like blowing things up or forcasting weather), but their primary purpose is military intel.
    Later… Stu

  • Alex Vella

    I can imagine Uav’s becomin predominat in the air force. they are really not hat much more expensive, if you look at the fact that just training the pilot for normal fighters is more tan 2.5 million. But why have them in the airline industry? Humans are more reliable, cheaper, (flying in a plane has less deaths per capita than driving)and your carrying human cargo anyways?