Drones, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), unmanned aircraft system (UAS), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or autonomous aircraft; they go by a variety of names and have a variety of features but whatever you call them what we are talking about are combat aircraft with no people in them.
There are those who believe that they herald a revolution in Air Power (people who care about these things always use capitals when writing about Air Power). The truth is that like most military revolutions, particularly those based on new technology, more is promised then can be delivered. Drones bring little that is new to air warfare other then the promise of lower casualties, at least among the fliers. In terms of effects they are not much different from piloted aircraft. Already the siren call of lower cost is fading under the harsh light of reality. It turns out that it costs just as much to fly and maintain a modern drone as it does any other aircraft and the longer hours that can be flown by these aircraft make up for any savings to be found in not employing pilots.
One new capability that drones do bring to the application of Air Power is persistence. Formerly the preserve of Navies and Armies it is now possible for aircraft to maintain a long term presence. Once nations used the ability of warships to remain off the coast of an adversary to influence events, now it is possible to imagine an aircraft in international airspace maintaining station for long periods adjacent to “countries of interest” for the same purpose.
Oddly enough it is the legal ramifications of their use, rather then technical issues, that may be the greatest limit on the use of drones. Nobody knows who will be responsible in the event of a crash, mid-air collision, or death resulting from the misuse of munitions. To deal with some of these issues some manufactures are even designing optionally piloted aircraft. A pilot can take responsibility on the way to the war and after that it’s up to the lawyers. Until someone, or some responsible organization, decides the answers to these questions, the use of drones is going to be strictly limited in any non war-zones.
It’s interesting to consider that if these legal issues should be settled in a manner that suits the manufacturers and the courts it will create a new age of air travel. Private aviation would take off, literally, in a world in which non-pilots could dial in a destination and leave all the flying to the autopilot. If this is the case then paradoxically one of the most important effects of the development of unmanned aircraft may be to increase the number of people flying.