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The UAV is an acronym for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, which is an aircraft with no pilot on board. UAVs can be remote controlled aircraft (e.g. flown by a pilot at a ground control station) or can fly autonomously based on pre-programmed flight plans or more complex dynamic automation systems. UAVs are currently used for a number of missions, including reconnaissance and attack roles. For the purposes of this article, and to distinguish UAVs from missiles, a UAV is defined as being capable of controlled, sustained level flight and powered by a jet or reciprocating engine. In addition, a cruise missile can be considered to be a UAV, but is treated separately on the basis that the vehicle is the weapon. The acronym UAV has been expanded in some cases to UAVS (Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle System). The FAA has adopted the acronym UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) to reflect the fact that these complex systems include ground stations and other elements besides the actual air vehicles.

Officially, the term 'Unmanned Aerial Vehicle' was changed to 'Unmanned Aircraft System' to reflect the fact that these complex systems include ground stations and other elements besides the actual air vehicles. The term UAS, however, is not widely used as the term UAV has become part of the modern lexicon.


The military role of UAV is growing at unprecedented rates. In 2005, tactical and theater level unmanned aircraft (UA) alone, had flown over 100,000 flight hours in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF). Rapid advances in technology are enabling more and more capability to be placed on smaller airframes which is spurring a large increase in the number of SUAS being deployed on the battlefield. The use of SUAS in combat is so new that no formal DoD wide reporting procedures have been established to track SUAS flight hours. As the capabilities grow for all types of UAV, nations continue to subsidize their research and development leading to further advances enabling them to perform a multitude of missions. UAV no longer only perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, although this still remains their predominant type. Their roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack (EA), strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defense (SEAD/DEAD), network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue (CSAR), and derivations of these themes. These UAV range in cost from a few thousand dollars to tens of millions of dollars, and the aircraft used in these systems range in size from a Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) weighing less than one pound to large aircraft weighing over 40,000 pounds.


UAV Types


Target and decoy - providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile

Reconnaissance - providing battlefield intelligence

Combat - providing attack capability for high-risk missions (see Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle)

Research and development - used to further develop UAV technologies to be integrated into field deployed UAV aircraft

Civil and Commercial UAVs - UAVs specifically designed for civil and commercial applications.


Degree of Autonomy


Some early UAVs are called drones because they are no more sophisticated than a simple radio controlled aircraft being controlled by a human pilot (sometimes called the operator) at all times. More sophisticated versions may have built-in control and/or guidance systems to perform low level human pilot duties such as speed and flight path stabilization, and simple prescripted navigation functions such as waypoint following.


From this perspective, most early UAVs are not autonomous at all. In fact, the field of air vehicle autonomy is a recently emerging field, whose economics is largely driven by the military to develop battle ready technology for the warfighter. Compared to the manufacturing of UAV flight hardware, the market for autonomy technology is fairly immature and undeveloped. Because of this, autonomy has been and may continue to be the bottleneck for future UAV developments, and the overall value and rate of expansion of the future UAV market could be largely driven by advances to be made in the field of autonomy.


Autonomy technology that will become important to future UAV development falls under the following categories:


Sensor fusion: Combining information from different sensors for use on board the vehicle

Communications: Handling communication and coordination between multiple agents in the presence of incomplete and imperfect information

Motion planning (also called Path planning): Determining an optimal path for vehicle to go while meeting certain objectives and constraints, such as obstacles

Trajectory Generation: Determining an optimal control maneuver to take to follow a given path or to go from one location to another

Task Allocation and Scheduling: Determining the optimal distribution of tasks amongst a group of agents, with time and equipment constraints

Cooperative Tactics: Formulating an optimal sequence and spatial distribution of activities between agents in order to maximize chance of success in any given mission scenario

Autonomy is commonly defined as the ability to make decisions without human intervention. To that end, the goal of autonomy is to teach machines to be "smart" and act more like humans. The keen observer may associate this with the development in the field of artificial intelligence made popular in the 1980s and 1990s such as expert systems, neural networks, machine learning, natural language processing, and vision. However, the mode of technological development in the field of autonomy has mostly followed a bottom-up approach, and recent advances have been largely driven by the practitioners in the field of control science, not computer science. Similarly, autonomy has been and probably will continue to be considered an extension of the controls field. In the foreseeable future, however, the two fields will merge to a much greater degree, and practitioners and researchers from both disciplines will work together to spawn rapid technological development in the area.


To some extent, the ultimate goal in the development of autonomy technology is to replace the human pilot. It remains to be seen whether future developments of autonomy technology, the perception of the technology, and most importantly, the political climate surrounding the use of such technology, will limit the development and utility of autonomy for UAV applications.


Under the NATO standardization policy 4586 all NATO UAVs will have to be flown using the Tactical Control System (TCS) a system developed by the software company Raytheon.


UAV Endurance


Because UAVs are not burdened with the physiological limitations of human pilots, they can be designed for maximized on-station times. The maximum flight duration of unmanned aerial vehicles varies widely. Internal combustion engine aircraft endurance depends strongly on the percentage of fuel burned as a fraction of total weight (the Breguet endurance equation), and so is largely independent of aircraft size. Solar electric UAVs hold the potential for unlimited flight, a concept championed by the Helios Prototype, which unfortunately was destroyed in a 2003 crash.


While UAVs receive only a fraction of the amounts spent on fighter aircraft and tactical missiles, large U.S. requirements spurred by the War on Terror have changed the picture. Throw in aggressive submarine and ship-launched UAV programs, an ambitious future UAV roadmap, and the high cost of advanced systems like the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV (whose production over the next 10 years could reach $3.5 billion and exceed 200 units) and J-UCAS, and the global forecast ends up getting a significant boost.


Many people have mistakenly used the term Unmanned 'Aerial' System, or Unmanned 'Air Vehicle' System instead of Unmanned Aircraft System.


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