What Great Bi-Planes

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – drones – were first used during our Civil War – unsuccessfully. Today’s UAVs are highly sophisticated devices, one small enough to be carried in a soldier’s backpack, another capable of carrying a half dozen missiles, and a third mounting 368 independently operated video cameras.

Y’s Man Jay Dirnberger, a decorated Vietnam War Army Captain and helicopter pilot, offered the organization a multi-media overview of UAVs including a bit of history, a discussion of capabilities, a look at a few of the better known vehicles. He also raised problems they raise, but added that the “the moral and legal arguments are best saved for a panel discussion.”

Today’s UAV technology, he said, is comparable to that of “post-WWI bi-planes.” UAVs were demonstrated during and after WWI. In 1944 Germany’s V-1 rocket became the first combat application. The Ryan Firebee was used for reconnaissance in Vietnam. And during the 1973 Yom Kippur War the Israelis lofted radio-controlled scout drones to an altitude of 15,000 feet for up to seven hours to gather intelligence, a tactic they called “very, very effective”

The most interesting and sophisticated technology Dirnberger described was the ARGUS-IS (Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System), a video platform rather than a UAV. He used a piece of a PBS Nova video, Rise of the Drones, to show this “next generation of surveillance technology.”

To keep the costs of this DARPA funded project down and speed its development the proposed new imaging system was removed. The developer, BAE, solved the problem by harnessing 368 five megapixel smartphone cameras to create a 1,840 megapixel unit and developed the world’s highest resolution camera. Users can open 65 windows at the same time to view everything from a wide area image covering 15 square miles to tracking individual objects as small as six inches, all from a height of 17,500 feet. ARGUS transmits a real time stream and stores one million terabytes of imagery per day – the equivalent of five thousand hours of HD video.

Dirnberger told the group that the most widely used military UAV is the Army’s RQ-11 Raven, a tactical weapon a soldier can carry in his backpack and launch by throwing it into the air. It weighs about four pounds, has an operating radius of six miles, stays airborne for up to 90 minutes and mounts color video and infrared night vision cameras. It can fly a pre-programmed mission or a remote control and GPS to revise its route during a mission.

The best known, he noted, is the MQ-1 Predator, a UAV the Air Force and CIA are using in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was developed in the early 1990s as a forward reconnaissance platform and later fitted to carry two 100 pound Hellfire missiles. A Predator is 27 feet long, has a 49 foot wingspan, and weighs 2,000 pounds. It cruises at 84 miles per hour, has a range of 675 miles, and can hover 2,000 feet above a target for 14 hours before returning to base.

This aircraft plays an important surveillance role in Afghanistan, finding Osama bin Laden, tracking him, then assisting in his killing by Navy SEALS.

Another widely used drone is the larger, more advanced MQ-9 Reaper. It weighs 10,500 pounds and is 36 feet long. It is powered by a 950 horsepower turbo-prop engine that enables it to fly at up to 300 miles per hour. A Reaper can carry a payload of 3,800 pounds over a range of 1,150 miles with a flight time of 14 hours. Its ceiling is 50,000 feet, but more typically operates at 25,000 feet.

The Reaper is also employed in this country, for border surveillance and by NASA, and it has been sold to other countries.

While the Predator and Reaper can both fly pre-programmed routes autonomously, they are most often “flown” by ground controllers. Dirnberger used a clip from the PBS video to show two Air Force pilots in a small trailer – one that can be located anywhere in the world – using a joystick to control the craft and viewing its progress on a computer screen. One commented that this turns missions into something akin to a video game.

The PBS piece called these the “ultimate fighting machines.” it said that “the Air Force has 2,300 manned fighter planes and over 10,000 UAVs…, that it trained twice as many unmanned pilots as manned last year…, and that within ten years one-third of the Air Force’s planes will be unmanned.”

Drones, Dirnberger said, have a range of uses – reconnaissance, combat, research and development, as well as civil and commercial. They offer users lower weight, cost and complexity than systems designed to accommodate and protect an on board pilot.  UAVs can remain airborne far longer than manned fighter, they use about 1/300 the fuel during a 24 hour mission versus a manned fighter’s two hour sortie.

Dirnberger noted that because they can “stay on target so long they can get better due process feedback” than a fighter plane. Thus, if a critical decision must be made by higher rank individuals, a drone’s ability to hover provides that time.


They are being employed for tasks that are “too dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned missions. In addition to their growing military role, drones are being used for law enforcement surveillance and to photograph crime scenes, for weather forecasting, monitoring agricultural crops, and for quality control tasks including checking freight train brakes and the integrity of oil pipelines.

But UAVs do have drawbacks. Dirnberger cited a Wall Street Journal article that called them accident prone due to system malfunctions and pilot error; drones have been shot down and captured; they invade personal privacy and raise due process issues in this country and in war zones. But, ultimately, because they virtually eliminate the loss of life UAVs make it “too easy to go to war.”


During the post-meeting speaker’s lunch Dirnberger demonstrated his personal drone – a $29 “toy” he purchased from Radio Shack, and controls with an iPhone app. Attendees saw lift offs, but flights were short, he said, because the battery needed charging.