Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Another Energy Implications Update from the Air Force UAV Files

I don't have numbers that describe drone fuel demand, but we can assume that being smaller, lighter and slower, they get many more MPG than F-15s, F-16s and A/F-18s. However, you also want to factor in the fact that a UAV typical sortie can be five times as long as a fighter sortie, so that may serve to balance things out a bit.

You'll have to sort through some of the variables in your head to imagine future fuel demand implications ... things like:
  • how many concurrent, continuous global UAV sorties (40 is the number today)
  • how big and heavy are some UAVs going to become
  • at what speeds and altitudes will they fly
  • will the DOD UAV inventory be counted in the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands ... or even higher
  • will jet fuel remain the primary fuel source
  • will new airframe efficiencies (like those described briefly in the previous post) bring a significant reduction in fuel demand per vehicle
This recent article in the Washington Post paints the UAV's future with a bit more resolution, even as it joins the chorus questioning the viability of the Air Force as an independent service. In this excerpt, the author is referencing some of the different UAV use cases and deployment configurations developed by Colonel Eric Mathewson, principal author of last years's "USAF Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, 2009-2047":
The plan that Mathewson produced for the Air Force envisions unmanned planes not only providing surveillance and striking targets, but also hauling cargo around the world. Instead of flying just one plane, a single pilot would probably control as many as four or five planes simultaneously. "If I am doing a surveillance mission where the plane is literally just staring at the ground or at a road for eight or ten hours, I don't need a pilot actively controlling the plane," he said. "So maybe I have a squadron of 40 aircraft but I only have four or five people monitoring them." The Air Force and Mathewson have already demonstrated in training that one pilot can fly as many as four Predators.
There are a lot of organizational culture issues in the Post article, and how they play out may be as important in predicting the future as are the technology factors. With so many variables, it's still too early for me to imagine the energy demand consequences. But it's necessary (and a little fun) to think about it now.

Photo Credit: Zach Tumin on Flickr

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