Unmanned aerial systems—where to for Australia?
10 Mar 2014|

HERON RPA A45-253 out on the hardstand at dawn at the Woomera Test Range.

Minister for Defence Senator David Johnston took the opportunity to launch a special report from The Sir Richard Williams Foundation, Protecting Australia with UAS (unmanned aerial systems), at the Australian Defence Magazine Congress earlier this week.

The report is the product of numerous seminars, interviews and workshops conducted with both the Defence and civil communities in government and industry over the last 12 months. The big take home message comes from Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, who says that Australia has to come to terms with the fact that armed UAS are in our future. But the ADF will operate such assets with a human in the loop, and will obey the Rules of Engagement as outlined under the Laws of Armed Conflict (PDF).

Australia isn’t a newcomer to the use of UAS, and the report explores the increasing role that they’ve played in the Australian military context over the past 10–15 years By global standards Australia was a relatively late adopter of UAS technologies but has gained much operational experience with the Scaneagle, Heron and Shadow UAS in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The big question with those operations now drawing down is how to apply the knowledge gained from such operations in an uncertain future.

There’s an acknowledgement in the report of the inevitability of more UAS being used in Australia, not just by defence but by other government agencies for a range of defence and civilian tasks, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for border protection, response to natural disasters and civilian use for pleasure.

Perhaps the most startling piece of information in the report is the consensus that the aircraft is the easiest part of the UAS equation. It’s the processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) element that goes on behind the scenes that determines how useful any UAS really is. Without a good backend system, a UAS isn’t much more than a flying machine without anyone sitting in it. Sensors and data links are an integral part of the package and have to be matched to the role.

The other elephant in the room is the regulatory environment that UAS will operate in. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is working through what issues are involved in operating unmanned aircraft and admits that there’s still much work to be done on this front. Regulatory work being done in the US on how to integrate UAS into civil airspace will help shape the Australian experience as well.

The report has an overall focus on what the government and defence framework should look like going into the future—a roadmap of sorts. Challenges such as policy development, public perception, the unmanned vs. manned debate (especially in the defence context) and the development of new concepts of operation are all canvassed. The report makes an excellent case for the continued use of UAS in various defence scenarios and expansion into more civil realms based on the relatively low cost, flexibility and survivability that UAS can provide.

In the end, there are a number of practical recommendations to make sure that Australia makes the most of UAS can offer the nation. Among them, the report urges more cooperation between Defence and CASA as technology moves ever onwards and upwards. It also advises government and defence to support local Australian industry and academia in helping to develop the PED side of the technology in the wider context of the new Defence White Paper and updated Defence Capability Plan.

It makes a lot of sense to cement the lessons learned from ADF operations in Afghanistan over the past decade through a range of measures in the short term. But the idea that UAS should be used as a whole of government asset in the medium to longer term will take more thought and will present challenges to our policy makers. But it’s an important idea that we need to think about.

Katherine Ziesing is the editor of Australian Defence Magazine and a board member of The Sir Richard Williams Foundation. The views expressed here are her own. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.