NO MATTER WHAT you call them, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), RPAs (Remotely Piloted Aircraft), UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), drone-ish aircraft are proliferating. While their use in overseas battlefields is now well established and notorious, their deployment, domestically, is still up in the air. How to integrate them into public airspace, so they do not conflict with current aviation, and maintain safety and privacy for people on the ground, is being worked out by the FAA and others now.
Drones are flown from dozens of existing military airfields around the country, and are spreading quickly to the rest. (The Air Force trains more drone pilots now than they do fighter and bomber pilots combined.) Military bases where they are used sometimes have runways dedicated to drone storage and traffic. Companies that build them test them at military and civilian airports, and in some cases have their own dedicated UAV R&D airports. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge a new kind of airport now: a Droneport. Since we are on the cusp of this game-changing moment of aviation in the USA, let's take a look at some of the places where these new birds roost.
Edwards Air Force Base, the historic test site for nearly every military aircraft developed in the USA, is where many of the large drones are now tested too. Drones have been flying from here since WWII. NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards has a few drones of its own. In May 2012, Boeing’s Phantom Eye, a new high altitude reconnaissance platform that uses hydrogen fuel to keep it aloft for long periods, made its debut there. In 2011 the company’s Phantom Ray, an aptly named manta ray shaped stealth UAV, was flown to Edwards from Boeing’s Phantom Works plant, in St. Louis, on the back of the 747 used to carry the space shuttle, to make its maiden voyage at Edwards. At Northbase, a remote compound at Edwards with its own runways at the north end of Roger’s Dry Lake, new hangars and office trailers have gone in recently, with work being done on some kind of secret UAV, some say.
These high altitude, persistent aircraft are one type of drone, whose function is to stay high enough up, around 65,000 feet, to be out of the way of other planes, out of reach of many ground-based missiles, and to loiter and observe, using high resolution optics or other sensors to see the ground. They can also be used as radar platforms, and relay stations. These craft tend to be large. In addition to Boeing’s models, AeroVironment is developing the Global Observer, with a 170-foot wingspan, for this type of use. Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, with a 130-foot wingspan, has this capability as well.
Some of these planes are based out of military airfields that have a history of high altitude observation, where the SR 71, U-2, or other spy planes were (or are) based, for example, like Beale Air Force Base in northern California. On the east coast, the Webster Field Annex of the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River is the Navy’s main UAV drone base. A Global Hawk based there recently crashed near Bloodsworth Island, across the bay (June 11, 2012). Lockheed’s RQ-170, a large, high-flying drone shaped like the stealth bomber, is built by Lockheed’s Skunkworks in Palmdale, California, and is flown around the world from control stations at the Tonopah Test Range and Creech Air Force Base (on opposite ends of the Nellis Range in Nevada). It was a RQ-170 that loitered high above Bin Laden’s compound the night he was killed, and it was a RQ-170 that crashed in Iran in 2012.
The most notorious drones are the ones that can be used at low and high altitudes, and can carry a variety of large observation and sensing packages, as well as weapons. The two most commonly used of this type, at the moment, are General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper, the hunter/killer drones. The Reaper, a larger version of the Predator, has a wingspan of 66 feet, and a payload capacity of 3,000 pounds. In addition to shooting things like Hellfire guided missiles, it can carry minidrones under its wings, which fly off and deploy weapons of their own.
General Atomics, based in San Diego, is a company with roots in early internet infrastructure (it operated a supercomputing center, and InterNIC, the governing body for all domain names, until 1998), as well as atomic power. It has been building drones for the CIA since the 1980s, based out of a desert airfield at El Mirage, California, which it still operates.
General Atomic’s Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility is a dedicated R&D droneport a few miles south of the El Mirage site. The former desert auxiliary airfield was converted into a radar-cross section test facility by McDonnell Douglas in the 1970s, and used for stealth research. It was sold to General Atomics in the early 2000s and converted into an airport again, but not one intended for manned aircraft. It is here that much of the work on the Predator and its bigger version, the Reaper, was performed, as well as on the company’s new Avenger model, a bigger and faster jet-powered version of the Reaper, recently approved for deployment.
Predators and Reapers are housed at more than ten military bases around the country, as well as many more overseas. Outside of California, they can be found at the local airport for Syracuse, New York, where a National Guard base on the southern end of the airport converted from F-16 jets to MQ-9 Reaper UAVs in 2010. And at Ellington Field, a civilian airfield near Houston, where a military reconnaissance wing flies the MQ-1B Predator drones around the world. Creech Air Force Base, on the Nellis Range in southern Nevada, was the home of the first official Air Force Squadrons to fly the Predator and Reaper UAVs. Formerly known as Indian Springs Auxiliary Field, which supported the nuclear testing program, the base was renamed, repurposed, and expanded in the early 2000s, to become the most active UAV base in the country, where many of the killer missions over Iraq and Afghanistan were flown.
Despite their versatility and fame, the Predator/Reapers are not the most prolific UAV (due to cost too–the MQ-9 model Reaper program called for 57 planes, at a total cost of more than $11 billion). Small over the hill reconnaissance drones, with wingspans ranging from 20 to two feet, are in use by militaries all over the world (more than 45 nations are known to fly drones), and more than 20 nations manufacture them. This is the class of UAVs that is beginning its proliferation into civilian uses, including environmental mapping, police surveillance, and filmmaking.
The big aerospace companies all have drones in this category too, sold to the military for reconnaissance, such as Lockheed’s two pound Desert Hawk; Boeing’s 40-pound Scan Eagle (built by a new small UAV company within the company called Insitu); Honeywell’s 16-pound T-Hawk; and the 28-pound Aerosone, the first UAV to cross the ocean (in 1998), built by AAI Corp., a division of Textron, based in Maryland, which also makes the popular Shadow, a 375-pound mid-size surveillance drone, in use at around 20 bases in the USA. The FAA recently permitted the Shadow UAV to be flown out of Benson Municipal Airport, in Arizona, the first time a UAV has been officially permitted to share runways at a general aviation airport.
The company that currently dominates the small drone market is AeroVironment, an independent company with roots in human powered and long range solar powered aircraft, designed by its visionary founder Paul MacCready Jr. (whose solar and pedal-powered planes are displayed in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum). The company is based in Monrovia, California, east of Pasadena, with production and R&D in Simi Valley. The company has produced what is possibly the most common UAV, the hand launched, four-pound RQ-11 Raven, which is used for surveillance, equipped with a rugged PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera, that can transmit live video and infrared over several miles. 10,000 of these have been sold to the military, and are used all over the world. The company also makes the tiny WASP, a quiet, one-pound UAV, used by Special Operations, and capable of transmitting video line-of site for three miles. The company is also marketing the Qube, a small four-rotor quadrocopter that fits in the trunk of a car and transmits PTZ video, for use by law enforcement.
These planes are high quality production versions of what civilian hobbyists have been making on their own, converting remote control model airplanes into DIY drones, equipped with videocameras, and flying them in parking lots, parks, and RC airports across the land. The technology of these small military drones is beginning to enter the marketplace of mass production at reasonable costs, enabling many more of us to have the over the hill view. Like GoogleEarth, this will empower many, and possibly dismay many more. We’ll see.
Some Notable Drone-Related Sites in the USA