TSW has reported on a number of stories that involve the various ways drones are now being used across the globe. (1) However, what is not commonly reported on is how these technologically advanced tools are operated. Of course the obvious answers are “autonomously” or “by satellites”. Yet, these answers do not even scratch the surface of how advanced the technology really is. How exactly does the U.S. use satellites to operate drones overseas?
Let’s start with the obvious answers: autonomously and by satellites. These are not incorrect answers, there is just a lot more to it than that. With that being said, though, autonomy is the foundation of drone technology.
According to the UCSB ScienceLine, “Autonomous guidance requires two things. First, you need sensors of some kind to tell you your flight parameters: position, direction, and speed. Second, you need some way to modify the flight. This is common to any kind of autopilot or military system.” (2)
It is these sensors where satellites come in. Using GPS satellite systems in conjunction with the sensors, the military can easily determine position. With two position readings, it is not any more difficult to determine speed and direction. Though important, satellites are only a portion of what is needed to operate a drone.
One Second Delay
Along with the satellites, drones also need a data link to a Mobile Ground Control Station (MGCS). The satellites work in tandem with the MGCS to provide constant communication to the drone. As Fox News explains:
“The aircraft operates with clear line-of-sight to the ground data terminal antenna, while over-the-horizon communication is achieved via satellite link.” (3)
Additionally both methods of communications are used during a single mission. For example, a direct line-of-sight communication is used during take off and landing; then, during flight the drone is switched over to satellite communication so the drone can be controlled remotely from halfway across the globe.
Another advantage of the the tandem approach is the avoidance of the infamous one-second delay that is present during the satellite portion of the drone’s flight (4). When flying in the open expanse of the skies, the one-second delay does not cause that much of an issue. However, it does pose a threat to delicate maneuvers that are required during landing and take off.
However, with line-of-sight communication, the drone can be controlled in real-time without a delay. Allowing the crew at the MGCS to control the drone and it respond immediately lessening the threat of the drone crashing during these portions of the mission.
Drones Require Two Operators
MGCS crews often only consist of two-person crews which are the pilot and the sensor operator. (5) The pilot operates the drone during take off and landing, but also has a number of other duties.
In the US Army, they are considered to be intelligence specialists and as such, “they are integral to providing Army personnel with information about enemy forces and battle areas”. (6)
Some of their job duties are: “Plan and analyze flight missions; Perform preflight, in flight and postflight checks and procedures; Launch and recover air frame from runway.” (6)
The sensor operator is just as important as the pilot. According to the U.S. Air Force, if you become a UAV Sensor Operator, “You’ll use state-of-the-art equipment to perform surveillance and reconnaissance and provide close air support and real-time battle damage assessment.” (7)
Some of that support would come in the form of “Operate remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) mission equipment, systems, electro-optical sensor systems and electronic protection (EP) equipment and Gather, record, display and distribute mission information.” (7)
The operation of drones is a very technical and complex endeavor. It relies on two forms of communications, line-of-sight and satellite, that can be switched seamlessly between to types of different crews. However, the result is a highly valuable military reconnaissance tool and weapon that has changed the face of modern warfare.