Loitering airships could dispense drones on demand

Loitering airships could dispense drones on demand

Paul Marks, chief technology correspondent

1_airship.jpg(All images: MBDA)

Go to any motor show and you’ll see concept cars on show, demonstrating some of  the technologies carmakers think we’ll be driving some years hence. A similar “concept vision” for the drone industry was revealed at last week’s Farnborough Airshow in the UK – where missile maker MBDA revealed an alarming future in which a strange cross between drones and missiles could one day loiter in the skies for extended periods.

A joint venture of European aerospace firms BAE Systems, EADS and Finmeccanica, MBDA asked its weapons engineers to project ahead to 2030 and take a stab at guessing how UAVs might then be deployed.

What they came up with is a class of UAV that provides expendable backup for the descendants of today’s Predator and Reaper drones. The vision is of vast airships (above) that constantly loiter at high altitude over target areas, carrying pods of small UAVs in much the same way as today’s fighter jets carry missiles under their wings.

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These launcher racks could contain at least two types of armed UAV – a small scout and a long-range version. Both sprout spring-loaded wings when air-dropped and are powered by electric ducted-fan engines.

A controller on the ground – dressed in the robotic garb that will clearly be de rigeur in the 2030’s military – then punches a few buttons on a wrist mounted screen to choose a UAV and its target GPS waypoints. This will make the software used by the ground controllers’ gadget a major safety-critical component, however, requiring vast expense to make it both reliable and secure from interception by an attacker.

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The small scout UAV (below) would be an ultra lightweight drone designed for short-duration reconnaissance missions with a range less than 30 kilometres.

One of its tasks might be to seek out and illuminate a target with a missile-guiding laser beam for a larger UAV. It would also carry a 1-kilogram warhead so it can form part of an attack – presumably self-destructing at altitude if the mission is called off.

The larger air-dropped UAV (below) would fly for up to two hours to seek out harder-to-find targets. It also has a 1-kg warhead. “It can operate at low altitudes below the cloud base, providing accurate and precise targeting data when adverse weather conditions would limit target engagement directly by UAVs,” says MBDA.

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It may all sound very futuristic, but if you’re tempted to write this off as a pie-in-the-sky concept that will never happen – like most concept cars – the idea has in fact already aroused serious interest from a raft of the company’s military partners, according to an MBDA spokesman. You can see the firm’s (somewhat gung-ho) video here.

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