The drone derivatives
The proliferation of UAS across the world has seen the platforms reaching into all four corners as capability and capacity increases with each passing unmanned generation. At current estimates, well over 70 countries have their own UAS programmes.
These generations are of course much faster than human ones, which is only natural given the relatives speed advantages (analytical processing and reactions to name but two) machines have over their flesh and blood operators. A scant handful of years marked the time between the MQ-1 and the first flight of the MQ-9 for example, which in turn brought about the MQ-1C a few years later, not-withstanding ongoing MQ-9 Block 5 developments for the US Air Force.
Meanwhile, the Hermes 450 spent a decade or so before deciding to evolve but like the Number 20 bus you wait so long for it to happen, when it does two come along at once, with the WK450 and the 900 popping into existence in the mid-to-late noughties. What is most marked are the levels at which the internal and payload technology has improved in time with slight platform tinkerings.
Take the venerable 450, whose payloads now boasts EO/IR, SAR/GMTI, comms relay, laser designator and SIGINT capabilities, many of which it didn’t start out with when first taking to the skies back in the late-90s. The same goes for the MQs.
Is all this good news? Well yes it is. It’s not unknown that military programmes run and run, using an original airframe and developing generation after generation of derivatives. One need look no further than the C-130 (first flight in 1954 and dozens of variants and models later still operational) and the CH-47 Chinook, which first took to the air in 1961 and similarly still flying today.
The point is then that while we might hanker for arrowhead shaped delta wings of power zipping through the atmosphere (see Taranis, X-47B), some of the more interesting developments come in the fine-tuning of what already exists.
That is perhaps the truest indication of the level of maturity the (military) unmanned industry can claim.