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ISSUE 48 - January 2009
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The British author Edward Bulwer-Lytton was famous enough in the 1800's to have been buried in Westminster Abby. What’s that? Never heard of him? I’ll bet you recognize one thing about him; his novel “Paul Clifford” opens with the words “It was a dark and stormy night”.

We’re interested in him here because Bulwer-Lytton, often referred to as the ‘Father’ of science fiction, in one of his novels described a machine operating on it’s own. Years later a machine of this concept was to be patented in the U.S. by none other than Nikola Tesla.

Tesla's " First Practical Telautomation"

He called his invention ‘The First Practical Telautomation” and “The world's first wireless guided weapon” in 1897.

The world's first wireless guided weapon

Needless to say the military immediately recognized the value of this concept and development programs were opened by governments around the world. Their work was intensified by the outbreak of the First World War and successful UAV’s were flying prior to its end. The U.S. Army, aided by Orville Wright and C.H. Wills of the Ford Motor Company, flew its “Bug” in Dayton Ohio and in Great Briton; the British Royal Aircraft Establishment flew their “Ariel Target” at Farnborough. It seems that had these programs been allowed to continue that we might well be flying in ‘pilotless’ airliners today. But, they were not. With the end of the war in 1918 came the end to military R&D. Not until war once again loomed on the horizon were dollars to be available for every manner of military research.

Today of course we are faced with a bewildering array of ‘Unmanned Flying Vehicles’. One Nano Air Vehicle, an insect-sized flying reconnaissance machine by AeroVironment of California, is only 7cm long and weighs just 10g and mimics an ordinary insect. The U.S. military has spent $2.3 million for this hand-launched device used for reconnaissance both indoor and outdoor.


At the other end of this spectrum are birds like the exotic 70 foot wide ‘DarkStar’ (the RQ-3A DarkStar program seems to be on hold now or undergoing continued development cloaked in secrecy)

Dark Star

Global Hawk, now in world wide deployment by the U.S. for environmental monitoring, boarder security and combat reconnaissance

Global Hawk

and the deadly Predator, here shown with ‘HellFire’ missiles has pin point air strike capability, both controlled AND, autonomously!


These large complex UAV programs are more accurately UAV ‘Systems’, as they often encompass not only operators, but vast ‘systems’ of support hardware and communication networks with operators and decision makers on the other side of the globe.

UAV Controls

Finally, the traditional roll of aircraft, transports, bombers and fighters; all now being developed WITHOUT pilots. The advantages are manifold. For combat aircraft, no imagination is required to understand that with all human concerns removed the vehicles can be simpler, far less costly and able to avoid many crew requirement problems. Where human concerns are still evident, as in airliners, the advantages are still huge; much less expense in crew costs and scheduling, no sick time, health insurance, retirement plans and training. No human error accidents and again, a much simpler design.

So it is that as with the latest fighter developments, pilots are being designed out of the equation. Now its Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, or UCAVs, and defense experts today predict that the Joint Strike Fighter could be the last manned fighter ever built. Imagine an extremely high performance fighter, costing 75% less than a manned fighter, small, compact, 27 feet long with a 34-foot wingspan which can be disassembled, stored for 10 years, reassembled in less than an hour, loaded six to a C-17 freighter and dispatched to a war zone in hours.


It’s not hard to see the appeal of kicking the pilot out of these things. Thankfully I came along early enough to know what it’s like to fly an 86 and a 104. Soon the opportunity for that experience will be gone forever.

On the other hand, when we see science fiction pilots like Col. Wilma Deering from the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (Erin Gray), one can’t help but wonder why it is that they are so intent on ridding the sky’s of pilots.

Col. Wilma Deering

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