Boeing’s Phantom Eye cutaway view
The US military’s use of drones in warfare abroad is bipartisan, driven by an incredibly lucrative industry facing no austerity, defense contractors employed by private corporations, and imperialistic goals to remain the sole superpower.
Obama has intensified the program, but only because technological advancements have coincided with his presidency. Romney will certainly not give away the new powers the Executive has taken, deciding life and death, even regarding American citizens.
The potential for an incredibly dystopic future Skynet throughout America’s skies has already been decided. The collective shrug by most of the public has, in fact, ensured it. What even Constitutionalists and privacy experts seem to forget is that the vast majority of drones are used for warfare. This is what they’ve been designed to do, and what their “pilots” have been trained to dole out from above. Police departments are already dreaming of the possibility of armed drones in their area, and Seattle is looking for more (at $150,000 a pop) drones, despite the fact their PD has two already, sitting in storage.
Even as more enemies magically appear in various conflagrations abroad, one of America’s only remaining industries will continue to look for either customers or targets everywhere.
One of the more promising concepts is the Phantom Eye, a high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). The lightweight aircraft–its gross weight is 9,800 pounds–uses a hydrogen propellant, can carry a 450-pound payload and fly for four days at 65,000 feet.
The hydrogen propellant is no more expensive than gasoline and is readily available. Environmentally, hydrogen fuel is also ideal because its byproduct is water. The hydrogen fuel concept is one that Boeing is looking to implement across some of its other products.
“[There will be] more focus on making systems that are stealthier, so they can’t be detected as easily by the enemies, [and] more autonomous so they can operate more on their own. So, if they lose [a] communication link with the headquarters, they can continue to do their mission,” said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group.
The Phantom Eye unmanned airborne system completed its first autonomous flight June 1, at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA, during which it reached an altitude of 4,080 feet cruising at 62 knots. With proper equipment, the aircraft can communicate with surface ships up to 800 nautical miles away.
Boeing is also working on making a HALE-UAV that can fly for 10 days and carry a payload of 2,000 pounds. At the same time, the company is developing aircraft that will be more autonomous and better suited to fly in contested airspace. While Boeing is pushing for more autonomous capabilities, a company spokeswoman noted that manned vehicles are not going away; it plans to work on concepts to help unmanned and manned aircraft teams, something the Defense Department is demanding.
Last week, DARPA announced a successful test they conducted to determine the feasibility of Autonomous High Altitude Refueling (AHR).
After concluding a two-year study assessing autonomous refueling, the potential breadth of uses is quite staggering. Robots refueling robots who are able to remain airborne forever, surveilling or bombing anything they are programmed to by someone in an air-conditioned trailer thousands of miles away. Nobody seems to mind bombing Pakistan, and if the media gives a good enough reason, I doubt bombing Peoria will be minded either.
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