Rise of the Drones – UAVs After 9/11

by Randy Roughton    source: Armed with Science    Oct 4, 2011

Hummingbird drones fly at 11 mph and can perch on windowsills. The 3-foot-long Raven can be tossed into the air like a model airplane to spy over the next hill in Afghanistan. The Air Force’s new Gorgon Stare aerial drone sensor technology can capture live video of an entire city. From the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-1 Predator to considerably smaller aerial drones in recent years, the Air Force has experienced an unmanned aircraft revolution in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001.


Long before 9/11, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper, then U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander, envisioned giving unmanned aerial vehicles offensive capability that would allow immediate action when their surveillance cameras spotted high-value targets. In 1999, RQ-1 Predators flew over Kosovo 24 hours per day in surveillance of hostile forces.

Almost seven months before 9/11, a Predator successfully fired a Hellfire missile in flight near Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The same Predator was among the first three UAVs to deploy overseas on Sept. 12, 2001. By the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005, Jumper told Congress he wanted to buy every Predator the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego could build, and the Air Force announced it would buy 144 Predators and increase the squadrons of robotic spy planes from three to 12 in the next five years.


“It always amuses me that people think UAVs are the enemies of pilots when guys like myself and [former Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald] Fogleman are the guys who were most enthusiastic about bringing them on board,” Jumper said. “The people I know who fly airplanes are delighted when they find a Predator down there that can tell them exactly where their target is. So these are some of the myths we have to overcome. But these things will help redefine the future in a lot of different ways, and the Air Force, as it always has [been], is very ready to accept the changes that are inevitable.”

Since 9/11, UAV capabilities have rapidly advanced with technological progress like miniaturization and real-time digital imagery, Maybury said. One problem that has developed with the advancements has been the millions of minutes of video collected by aircraft like the Predator. Every day, the Air Force must process almost 1,500 hours of full-motion video and 1,500 photographs from around-the-clock combat air patrols. Military archives hold 24 million minutes of footage, but analysts have difficulty accessing information that could be useful.

“We’ve been very active with 57 continuous remotely piloted aircraft on station and 400 firefights in the past year alone, and 30,000 hours of full-motion video and 11,000 high-fidelity images, just in the past month,” Maybury said.

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