Page last updated at 22:09 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2008 23:09 UK

Unmanned aircraft market to soar

By Nigel Cassidy
Business reporter, BBC News, Farnborough

Beyond the loud aerial displays at the Farnborough airshow, one of the fastest-growing business areas in defence is a lot quieter and easier to miss.

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Watch the US Air Force's Predator UAV in action in the skies over Nevada, in the United States.

It is the market for small unmanned flying machines.

The US already has 5,000, mainly on patrol in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel makes and deploys them. And the UK is catching on fast.

UAVs are controlled remotely by "pilots", either guided elsewhere on the battlefield or invariably from far-away computer screens in for instance Las Vegas or Arizona.

In terms of operation, it is not so different from playing a video game - though military-types thoroughly dislike any such comparisons.

New dimension

We have a broad range of programmes, most of which I can't talk about
Scott Harris, president of Lockheed Martin

What defence specialists at Farnborough all seem to agree on is that the military and business demand for UAVs is about to explode, just like the market for satellites in the 1970s.

Standing in front of a Farnborough stand bristling with UAV hardware, Jim Albaugh, president of Boeing Defence, says UAVs are nothing less than the future of warfare.

"It is all about global situational awareness," he says.

"You are able to know where your assets are and where your enemies assets are. All this is driving the need for UAVs."

EADS defence chief Stefan Zoller says UAVs allow its air force customers to "leapfrog into another dimension".

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The Reaper, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), takes to the skies

"When you are flying in congested airspace, manned and unmanned can fly together in swarms," he says.

"What can be achieved is beyond what we see today in the market."

Secret programmes

Chris Ames, director of one of the UAV pioneers, the US company General Atomics, supplies the Predator and larger Reaper UAVs to the US and the UK.

"They can stay airborne for over 30 hours at a time, their sensors gaining critical intelligence for surveillance and reconnaissance, he explains, describing the aircrafts capabilities.

On show at Farnborough 2008

"This information can be acted on by commanders at higher HQ, and conveyed to others on the ground or in the air, so they know what they face and can do something about it."

Scott Harris, president of Lockheed Martin, says one benefit of UAVs is that the information they glean can be fully integrated with everything from data from space to what is happening in the field, to form a complete picture.

"UAVs are very interesting and complex," he says.

"Everybody is working on them and deploying them. Militarians can't get enough of them. We have a broad range of programmes, most of which I can't talk about."

One reason he is not talking about it is that UAVs are increasingly carrying weapons, so developments have to remain secret.

Yet it seems their increasing use on the battlefield - and in peacetime for mundane tasks such as traffic patrols - is now fully assured.


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