Outside La Spezia’s harbor, aboard a class Soldati Frigate, in unfavorable weather, and a sea -state 4 to 5, in presence of more than 10 ft .waves, the Italian Navy has accomplished, for the first time ever, trials with an unmanned helicopter, UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle),Camcopter S-100 type.
More precisely it has been tested the different tasks the UAV can do, or to better saying ,what an UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Sys) can, considering it as a complex systems including ground stations for flight control, for data transmission and other sensor elements, besides the actual air vehicles made of 2 S-100 Camcopter, to be able through the embarked optronic sensors for reconnaissance of various targets at sea, and surveillance over large sea areas. Camcopter is a limited dimensions rotary -wing’s UAV, built by the Vienna-based Schiebel Group, particularly interesting for the great flexibility, the payload that it can carry, the large endurance, and the cheap management costs especially if compared with other ‘’manned’’ air-vehicles operating on our Ships: first of all it is expendable in a large variety of risky missions because…there is no pilot aboard, nor passengers . Practically they carried out several take-off and landing maneuvers, from an unstable flight deck due to adverse weather conditions, but – at the same time- various operational tasks for searching and reporting, in real time, target’s data detected in operation’s area, by the appropriate use of TV camera and FLIR embarked. For the first time, in the Italian Naval Aviation’s history, the extraordinary couple Ship-Helo in which the Italian Navy relied among the world’s Navies , since many decades ago, now is becoming improved with a high capability ‘’unmanned’’ asset particularly interesting even under a ratio cost-effectiveness view. So not only take-off and landing trials in bad weather conditions and with a relative wind speed up to 40 knots (about 75 km per hour), to test the interface of the S-100 with the Ship, but inclusive of many operational trials conducted at great distance from the ship, carrying out several maritime surveillance and reconnaissance’s missions with reports , in an asset almost completely ‘’covert’’. Such trials ,conducted with TV and IR sensors, for night recon, last about 5 flight hours; the payload can vary with a sensor’s mixing –choosing the best ones for the mission- with the highest possible flexibility, to be integrated with Radar, EW , Intelligence different gears, etc. The ‘’long eye’’ can ,most likely, change its role in a ‘’extended arm’’( in the near future, hopefully, with light armament) as a force multiplier of any Ship fitted with a flight deck ; it represents an added value that increases the Ship’s overall capability, even when in presence of heavy threats , as you don’t want to put at risk either the pilot’s lives or the passengers ‘ones, as well. The UAVs can perform different tasks and types of missions over ample sea areas , staying in flight for prolonged periods of time being otherwise impracticable –due to psycho and physical stress- for a pilot, considering its large endurance; but even for the stealthness ‘s issue ( S-100 is low radar’s detectable , not easily visible due to reduced dimensions, and not easily hearable ..) that all together provide a set of good defense coverage. The results were outstanding also for the high definition images transmitted and for the data provided using a high performance TV/IR camera (Wescam MX-10 type), resulted perfectly smooth without any kind of vibrations typical of all the two-bladed disc rotor helicopter, as Camcopter . For the Italian Navy the event has to be considered as an ‘’absolute prime’’ with the UAV, even if the S-100 had chances to successfully prove its maritime surveillance capability on 14 different classes of vessels (German, French, Pakistan, etc) so far in three Oceans. The radius of action, the endurance of more than 6 hours extendible exceptionally to 10, the great capability to carry payload (50 kg among TV, FLIR, Radar, EW sets, etc.) make S-100 a precious tool to survey large areas, as in anti-piracy tasks, in immigration control over the sea, and in eco-environmental checks , and in any situation when the risk from pollution or contamination may be highly dangerous. UAV ‘s use is not certainly new ; since 1959 the USAF began planning for the use in intel missions ,then in the Vietnam war, further in the Gulf war, and finally in Iraq and Afghanistan, as technology growth and maturity and better performances were proved, including at last the Hellfire missile fittings. Their dual use in the civilian field, is very useful in the SAR operations both in accidents happening in mountains or at sea , but they are very well suited to carry out environmental survey, to check for chemical and biological pollution, fires, pipeline security, and illicit trafficking such as piracy, smuggling, etc. To have a better idea of UAV development, we must say that US have increased their numbers (just considering the Medium and Large UAVs, from Global Hawk to the Predator) till almost 700 UAVs, and only in the Iraq –Afghanistan war there have been employed more than 5000 various types, between strategic and tactical ones. Even the US Navy has recently decided to improve her ships operational capabilities with the adoption of rotary –wing UAVs, very similar in performance to the Camcopter (the Fire Scout), through an acquisition of about 30 systems to task them as a priority, but not limited, in ISR roles (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance). Robotic is running fast around the world, in civilian and military fields; a data inlighting: when I was stationed in US CentCom in 2004, involved in Iraq-Afghanistan wars; the US Army was employing about 150 autonomous robots of different kinds; now they employ about 4000 for survey roles, detaching mines or the famous IED. In the future we should be more and more aware of the new IT applied to the aircrafts and to the robotics in general, either in civilian or military fields, because that ’s going to influence our overall security and the civil progress of our lives. The limits will not be related to the more and more fostered IT, but due to two different issues. First, it will depend on our level of attention toward the Cyber Security and on our capability to monitor and answer to face threats or issues in the computer science or network as the IT will reach levels that now are unpredictable , in order to avoid that one day someone may ‘’ pull the plug’’. On the other hand, a limit can be the political view of UAV issues, and the related ethics in their roles , when UAVs are to be employed in war or in RWO, not only unmanned, but ‘’armed’’ as well. We then may always need to have the ‘’man in the loop’’, the man who thinks, the man who decides, the man who leads the actions, on his own, his quality, his values and his common good sense which are going to be, even in the future, the main important thing not subjected to trading –off even up-front the brightest robotic inventions!