Editor’s note: Some drones are bigger than a jet, weaponized and used in strategic military operations. Others are smaller than a basketball, sent airborne for basic surveillance or weekend recreation.
The label “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, is almost a catch-all term covering a wide range of devices that vary greatly in their capabilities and purposes. Yet the use of drones generally sparks intense debate, questions about security versus privacy and even fear.
In the WTOP series “Spy in the Sky,” WTOP examines the types of drones used by the U.S. military and fears about targeted killings, both at home and abroad.
PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION, Md. – Inside two noisy hangars about a mile apart sit two of the Navy’s most important and carefully guarded projects that could radically alter maritime intelligence gathering.
The Global Hawk, also known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D), is already a major contributor.
“When it’s flying out in the (Persian) Gulf area, it provides over 50 percent of the total Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR),” says Capt. Jim Hoke, program manager in charge of development for the BAMS-D Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). “Fifty percent from a single asset of that size is incredible.”
The vehicle is 45 feet long and 17 feet high and has a 117-foot wingspan.
“To put that in context, says Hoke, “A 737 (airplane) is about 125 feet. It is truly a big bird.”
Robust, fuel-efficient and capable of taking high-definition quality images from 11 miles up in the sky, it has earned the reputation of being a game-changer.
“What’s really good about this is this UAS is very, very fuel efficient. It burns less than a tenth of what a similar manned asset would burn,” Hoke says. “We fly a 24-hour mission on less than 16,000 pounds of gas.”
But Hoke says the true value of the BAMS-D is “its persistence, the ability to develop patterns of life, in a 24-hour picture, of all the maritime activity going on in a given area.”
A real drone
Spy in the Sky
The X-47B UAS in a hangar at Patuxent Naval Air Station. (WTOP/JJ Green)
Across the yard, in an equally shrouded environment, is the X-47B. It’s still being put through its paces, but if it passes its tests, it will live up to being called a drone.
It would work off of an aircraft carrier.
“When we would tell it to land for instance, it would go land on its own,” says Don Blottenberger, deputy program manager for the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System Program Office. “It would know where to go. It would know how to communicate with the aircraft carrier, all of the normal functions and people of the air craft carrier.”
Essentially, the pilotless X-47B is the true essence of a drone, because it would respond to all the commands it receives, and because it remembers what to do — just like a drone.