Remotely Piloted Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Remotely piloted Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) will play a pivotal role in the Royal Australian Air Force’s ability to deliver air power effects in the support of national security interests. The true value of such systems is not to provide a direct human replacement, but rather to extend and complement human capability. UAS extend air power’s endurance by providing potentially unlimited persistent capabilities without degradation due to human fatigue or inattention.

RAAF Triton

The effects provided by UAS range from electronic warfare to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and potentially strike. None of the effects are new to the Air Force, but the means of delivering them is evolving, just as the means to deliver most military effects have evolved over the years.

It is important to note that while not all UAS are remotely piloted, all UAS currently operated and being acquired or considered for the Air Force by the Australian Government are remotely piloted.  As such, there is always a human within the system. All UAS in use by Air Force meet stringent airworthiness requirements and follow strict operational guidelines to ensure the protection of other aviators, passengers and civilians on the ground. In fact, some types of remotely piloted UAS currently in operation are proving to be safer that certain forms of manned aircraft.

Air Force currently operates the Heron at RAAF Base Woomera in restricted military airspace for training purposes. Heron aircraft have completed more than 27,000 mission hours in Afghanistan providing high resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to Australian forces and our International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partners in southern Afghanistan. Australia’s Heron detachment in Afghanistan flew its final mission for Operation SLIPPER from Kandahar Air Field on 30 November 2014.

The Australian Government has additionally committed to acquiring the MQ-4C Triton subject to the successful completion of the US Navy development program currently under way. Based at RAAF Base Edinburgh, the Triton will be capable of supporting missions of over 24 hours while covering an area of over one million square nautical miles; an area larger than Western Australia. Together, the remotely piloted MQ-4C Triton and manned P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will provide Australia with one of the most advanced maritime patrol and surveillance capabilities to replace the ageing AP-3C Orion.

Australian personnel are currently carrying out training on the MQ-9 Reaper with the United States Air Force to ensure that Air Force personnel maintain their skills in a cost-effective manner, until the introduction of the MQ-4C Triton  into the Australian service.

This training program provides a cost effective method to increase Defence understanding of complex UAS operations and how this capability can be best used to protect Australian troops on future operations. The effects provided by UAS  range from electronic warfare to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and potentially strike. None of the effects are new to the Air Force, but the means of delivering them is evolving, just as the means to deliver most military effects have evolved over the years. UAS extend air power’s endurance by providing potentially unlimited persistent capabilities without degradation due to human fatigue or inattention.

Defence does not use the term ‘drone’ to refer to remotely piloted UAS. Drones have historically referred to unmanned aerial targets used to test air-to-air and surface-to-air weaponry, and have had little in common with aircraft such as the Heron or Triton remotely piloted UAS.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)

A remotely piloted aircraft, is the actual aircraft, which is flown by qualified pilots from a ground control station.

The Unmanned Aircraft System is the entire system that supports the aircraft. The system includes the aircraft, the ground control station, communications systems, information analysis, maintenance, logistics and other support facilities.