An intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle (ISR-UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft that does not require an onboard human pilot for operation. The ISR-UAVs themselves are part of a broader unmanned aircraft system (UAS), comprising of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a ground-based controller (usually human-operator), and a communications system between the two.
Although drones are unmanned, they are not unpiloted. Operating an ISR-UAV can be done through varying degrees of autonomy. Flight can be controlled remotely by highly-trained human operators at a central base location, or autonomously via onboard computer software.
The use of ISR-UAVs within military contexts has now become commonplace across the globe, owing to their beneficial applications in relation to reconnaissance and precision attacks. By being able to be unmanned, drones can fly in scenarios and situations that would otherwise be considered too difficult or risky for trained pilots. This has allowed the RAF to grow its surveillance sphere, enabling researchers and analysts to see further, and in greater detail, than previously possible. Crucially this is all achieved without the need for risking human life.
In line with this, modern drones are imbued with a range of high-end technologies including TV cameras, image intensifiers, radar, and infrared imaging. The combination of these systems provides troops and military strategists with regular and real-time information over target locations and operational zones.
One area that has become of particular interest for the RAF, is the development of microdrones and surveillance systems.
Tiny nano-drones are currently being used by the Service for a wide variety of surveillance and reconnaissance operations. Weighing as little as 30 grams, these micro-systems are pocket sized and hand-launched, allowing users to deploy the UAVs in various locations instantaneously.
By combining micro thermal cameras and visible spectrum cameras with advanced low-power rotor technology and leading communications software, these drones are capable of providing highly detailed and informative surveillance information to their users. Although they may not have the range and flight time of large ISR-UAV technologies, current microdrones can fly for 25 minutes within a 1-mile radius. As the technology underpinning these systems advances, we will see these performance figures improve drastically.
Although the example above is an innovative and useful form of drone technology, it is important to note that for the RAF, this is only useful in certain applications and settings. Using the above for overseas reconnaissance would be impractical, and in all honesty, impossible. Equally, using a Reaper drone to relay real-time information to a ground troupe on their surroundings, would be much less efficient than using a micro-drone.
For the RAF, the most pressing challenge they face in relation to IRS-UAVs, is having appropriate surveillance technologies in targeted locations. As the modern RAF adapts to new challenges as needs for observation on both home and foreign soil grow, the Service is actively considering how it can diversify its surveillance options.
To achieve this, the RAF is looking for unique and innovative ISR-UAV solutions that will help ensure it has eyes across its full surveillance network. Whether these are long range or short range, large or small, high flying or low flying, the RAF is keen to explore how unique and novel technologies can be best used when thinking about the next generation Air Force.
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