Predator, next generation UAVs opening new doors for Air Force

Military Technology

Investigative journalist George Knapp investigates the use of unmanned aircraft (UAVs) at Creech Air Force Base, north of Las Vegas. Col. Larry Felder talks about how the U.S. military is using unmanned aircraft, both large and small. Aired on Feb. 25, 2005 on KLAS TV in Las Vegas. Second of two parts.

When Col. Larry Felder worked at the Pentagon back in the ‘90s, he was part of an elite team that forecast the potential of UAVs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The team also created the concept of battle labs, specialized think tanks that focus on military needs. Felder went on to command the UAV battle lab at Indian Springs, which is the nerve center of a cutting-edge technology that’s exploding in many directions.

Indian Springs is the home of the best-known UAV, the Predator. It was Felder’s team that came up with the idea of arming Predators with missiles. Other innovations allow operators based at Nellis Air Force Base to fly Predators over Iraq and Afghanistan using satellite communication.

But this is only the beginning for UAVs.

“UAVs will not replace manned aircraft because there’s missions, and guess what, they just can’t do. But whether they’re good at is what I call the dull, dirty and dangerous,” Felder said.

For example, UAVs can now be linked to robots on the ground. Those robots can be sent into dangerous areas instead of sending troops.

In the air, a new generation of Predator is on the way. It will be bigger and more powerful. Col. Felder said the Air Force is also developing an unmanned combat robot as big as a Stealth, and eventually entire fleets of intelligent stealthy UAVs will take to the skies, talk to each other and coordinate their attacks. No pilots required.

The next generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles might not look anything like the first generation. (KLAS-TV)

Bigger UAVs are interesting, but it’s the tiny ones that can blow your mind. “There’s also a whole family of small UAVs that are evolving at DARPA and some of our labs,” Felder said. They’re exploring UAVs that are very, very tiny. I mean, I’m talking extremely tiny. Insect size.”

Some of those tiny contraptions might already be flying in Nevada.

Citizen watchdog Chuck Clark thinks the security around the Area 51 military base has heightened recently because of robo bugs. “They fly close to the ground and it’s probably the size of a model airplane or smaller because we’re talking stuff down to insect size,” Clark said.

Citizen watchdog Chuck Clark talks about smaller Unmanned Aerial Vehicles he believes are being tested. (KLAS-TV)

According to published reports, one micro-bot in development will imitate the flying motion of dragonflies. NASA has said it’s working on UAVs that are not only the same size as bees but will even fly and navigate just like bees. Such robo gadgets could be used to explore the harsh surface of Mars or other worlds and perform maintenance on the exteriors of spaceships during long missions.

Closer to home, UAVs could eventually be used to patrol our borders, or for Homeland Security.

Camera gear mounted on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. (KLAS-TV)

“What these provide is persistence. They have the capability to stare for a long time. And whether it’s persistence over one friggin’ building, or you’re just watching some guy that you want to take out, or you want to follow to the nest, take the nest out, or whether it is persistence along the coastline where you’re taking a look at what’s coming in, what’s going out,” Felder said.

Law enforcement agencies will want their own UAVs at some point for criminal surveillance. And there will be commercial uses, too.

Already in Japan something like the Predator has been adapted to work as a crop duster.

“The sky literally is the limit. Of course, the battle lab is focused only on military applications and there’s no shortage of ideas. Right now, we got about 13 initiatives — 11 are unclassified and we got two in the classified room,” Felder said.

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