Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Seems Wrong to Call Them "Drones"

The DOD Energy Blog has pondered the energy demand implications of UAVs before ... like here for example. It's still too early to tell which way this is going, but if you read the news you know that UAVs are on an upward trajectory and manned aircraft are heading for a landing. Here's two very different yet recent signposts that may tell us a little more about the vectors these new fangled aircraft are flying at.

The first is from Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of the outstanding 2004 book: The Pentagon's New Map. His article "The New Drones and the Re-symmetricized Battlefield" contends that UAVs are the US's first real equalizer in the asymmetrical wars in which we're engaged ... and that there's no question they're here to stay.

To this I add the otherwise mundane details of a company's conference call to its investors. Today, among other things publicly-traded AeroVironment revealed to investors and analysts, were these two nuggets:
  • We continue to believe that we are strategically well-positioned with our Unmanned Aircraft Systems focused on actionable intelligence and communication, and our efficient energy systems focused on clean electric vehicles and energy
  • We have seen a growing amount of our UAS funding reflected in DoD budget line items over the last few years. The current FY09 supplemental and FY10 DoD budget requests, although not yet final, suggest that this growth trend will continue.
If Barnett's well-informed top down view, bolstered by AeroVironment's bottom-up anecdotes regarding its mini-UAVs tell us anything, it's that UAVs are coming on strong in DOD thinking, planning and execution. But what does this mean for future fuel demand? Each UAV may be smaller and lighter and use comparably less fuel than its manned equivalent. But what if we eventually deploy 2, 10, 100 or 1,000 times as many of them as we currently do fighter, bomber and surveillance platforms? Will they be partially solar or fuel-cell powered and therefore not add substantially to our JP-8 demand? Or will they consume jet fuel in ever increasing quantities and put pressure on DOD to find an alternative to fossil fuels even faster than it's trying today?

Of course I don't know the answer and I bet DOD doesn't either, but stay tuned ... the plot only thickens.

Photo: AeroVironment

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