Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are an increasingly important part of the armed forces’ armoury as the planes’ role moves from reconnaissance and observation to targetting ground assets and possible airborne combat. UAVs – or drones – are predicated on radio control systems that allow their pilots to be half-a-world away in some circumstances, and ATDI has played a pivotal role in liaising with military planners over their use.
“Clearly, we can’t discuss the specifics of what we do,” says ATDI managing director Peter Paul, “but the issues facing anybody operating a UAV are the same and we’ve done a great deal of work to understand the inherent problems.”
Those issues include reducing the time delay between the controller’s action and the drone’s reaction. “There are lag times that may be acceptable on reconnaissance missions but would feel like an eternity in a dogfight,” Peter notes. “An essential element of air superiority and of our work is decreasing all time delays to as close to zero as possible.”
It is equally vital to protect the radio link from jamming and interference and ATDI has conducted a number of studies in this area and discussed potential solutions with the armed forces. “We’re also looking at the alternatives to radio control,” Peter says. “Where it can be achieved, line-of-sight control using a laser is a very desirable situation, for example. Where it can’t, radio will continue to play its part for the foreseeable future.”
The quality of radio systems will in large measure define the development of drones in combat roles. “If the control is fast enough, they can take on manned aircraft in dogfights. If, however, the control is sluggish – no matter the speed of the UAV pilot’s reactions or the quality of the vehicle itself – drones will never fully move into an air combat role,” says Peter. “That represents some really interesting challenges for those of us in the radiocommunications business.”