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Pictured above is the USS Akron, an ill-fated 1930s dirigible. With its sister ship the USS Macon, which also crashed and sank, it was one of very few operational airborne aircraft carriers, carrying four Sparrowhawk biplanes in internal hangars, launched and retrieved using a massive trapeze. The Soviets in WWII, and the US in the Cold War (with the B-36) also attempted to launch fighter escorts from long-range bombers. This concept was superseded by the development of mid-air refuelling, and was never really successful.

But could advances in semi-autonomous UAVs resurrect this retro-futurist fantasy?

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As Defense Tech’s David Hambling explains in “Pimp my Gunship”:

What better solution than an upgraded AC-130? The Future Spectre is still doing the same job as before, providing close air support to those who need it most, but doing it better. But it would be the heart of a network which includes drones, munitions and ground troops. It will continue to provide the persistence, firepower and high precision that has earned the Spectre its reputation. And it will be able to do it all from a range that greatly reduces risk to the aircraft.

The AC-130 Spectre gunship can put an unparalleled amount of fire on a pinpoint target, and it also bristles with sensors. According to Sean Naylor in Not a Good Day to Die, it was “the most effective weapons system the US was to deploy against Al Qaeda forces” during Operation Anaconda. Unfortunately, the AC-130s had to leave half an hour before daybreak each day, to avoid enemy fire – a lesson learned from the loss of some of the big, slow gunships over Vietnam and Iraq. The loss of 14 men aboard a Spectre gunship was the second worst single incident loss for the US in the Gulf War.

But what if you could launch long-range guided munitions from the gunship? What if it could also launch a swarm of drones to seek out targets at a distance, and suppress AA fire using their own weapons? (the Viper Strike system, inset) The vulnerabilities would melt away, leaving nothing but death from above.

The UK Ministry of Defence and contractor Qinetiq have also been testing a multiple UAV system, whereby four UAVs could be controlled by the pilot of one fixed-wing aircraft.  It sounds barely possible, but it worked in a simulation onboard an airliner:

“The pilot only had to give top level instructions to the UAVs on where to go and what weapons to use, not fly them minute-by-minute,” says Ben White, a Qinetiq spokesman…  In addition to controlling the jetliner in flight, the “pilot” ordered the simulated UAVs to carry out ground attacks on virtual moving targets. “The remote pilot has pushbutton commands for each UAV, telling it to loiter, undertake a search pattern, or attack a target,” Williams explains.

And perhaps one day the central, manned aircraft housing the controllers – the most vulnerable part of the network – could be dispensed with altogether, leaving just a networked, semi-autonomous swarm of UAVs and guided missiles, with their own refuelling capabilities. Perhaps, too, the rigid airship will return as a network hub, munitions carrier and refueller for UAVs, and the dream of the airborne aircraft carrier will finally be realised.

One Response to “Semi-autonomous UAV swarms: the future of air power”

“And perhaps one day the central, manned aircraft housing the controllers – the most vulnerable part of the network – could be dispensed with altogether, leaving just a networked, semi-autonomous swarm of UAVs and guided missiles, with their own refuelling capabilities. Perhaps, too, the rigid airship will return as a network hub, munitions carrier and refueller for UAVs, and the dream of the airborne aircraft carrier will finally be realised.”

Well, as long as long as this doesn’t come under the control of a self-aware AI rebelling against its human masters, no one should have any problem with it, right?

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