Droning On: UAVs

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Scott Benjamin: Welcome to Car Stuff. My name is Scott.

Ben Bowlin: And my name is Ben.

Scott Benjamin: I sounded like I was asking a question, didn't I?

Ben Bowlin: You know what? There's nothing wrong with checking. There are no stupid questions.

Scott Benjamin: Sometimes you wonder. That's okay. That would be kind of a stupid question though if I asked my own name. Anyway, Ben.

Ben Bowlin: Anyway, Scott.

Scott Benjamin: I got a hint here that you may want to talk about something that's military related.

Ben Bowlin: Yes, I do. We talked about this before.

Scott Benjamin: Yes. We get actually some requests for people that want to talk about military hardware. We've talked about tanks in the past. Have we talked about jets? I think we have talked about jets.

Ben Bowlin: We've touched on jets, because we talked about the idea of people strapping jet engines to cars.

Scott Benjamin: Which is, by the way, the greatest idea ever?

Ben Bowlin: Sure.

Scott Benjamin: It really is, and motorcycles and things like that. The smaller, the better! Go cart. Whatever. It happens.

Ben Bowlin: Or the thing where they put the rocket on the rails. Remember that?

Scott Benjamin: That's right. That's another good one. Anyway, this is another military topic for us. You've got a load of information on this. I've got very little on this, but I'm going to quiz you about it, because I'm really interested in these. I think they're cool. I just have never really taken the time to learn a whole lot about them, but you have.

Ben Bowlin: Scott, first off, that's very flattering.

Scott Benjamin: I do what I can.

Ben Bowlin: I appreciate it, buddy. Don't get everybody's hopes up because we don't know -

Scott Benjamin: This is going to be the greatest podcast ever, everybody.

Ben Bowlin: Ever, ever, ever, ever.

Scott Benjamin: Okay.

Ben Bowlin: What we're talking about today are called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Scott Benjamin: UAVs.

Ben Bowlin: UAVs have -

Scott Benjamin: AKA drones.

Ben Bowlin: AKA drones.

Scott Benjamin: We hear that a lot now in the news, right? Drones. They always say drones. I never hear UAVs.

Ben Bowlin: You hear about drones. You'll hear about drones working typically in military areas or theaters of war, like they'll be in Afghanistan. They'll be in Pakistan. You'll hear about them doing reconnaissance missions. Some of these vehicles are armed as well. Here's a funny thing that I think most people don't know about drones. We should start with this. The first unmanned aerial vehicle, are you ready for this?

Scott Benjamin: I'm ready.

Ben Bowlin: 1930s.

Scott Benjamin: Really?

Ben Bowlin: The British Royal Navy - maybe it's a little bit extreme to say it's the absolute first one, but it's the first one that the military used that we know about. Maybe there's a secret one. It was called The Queen Bee. It could go about 100 miles an hour, and a 160 kilometers for our non-U.S. listeners.

Scott Benjamin: Very good. No kidding? I wouldn't have expected this. Not at that time.

Ben Bowlin: The big thing that really separates it from a rocket is that it can land, and you can use it again. This is the funny part, though. We have this in our article on How Stuff Works. Instead of being used offensively, it was mainly target practice for British pilots.

Scott Benjamin: No kidding.

Ben Bowlin: Which was how it was supposed to be used? They would take it out, fly around, and learn to be an ace by shooting these.

Scott Benjamin: A World War I flying ace.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. World War II brought some other things out on the German side. It was more like a bomb, more like a robotic kamikaze. Maybe "robot" is not the fairest word, but this thing could go 804 kilometers an hour, 500 miles an hour for our U.S. listeners.

Scott Benjamin: Significant increase, and that's during World War II.

Ben Bowlin: That's during World War II, so not that much time has passed. Then we see these used in other places. In the '70s they were used in the Middle East in the Yom Kippur war.

Scott Benjamin: These are programmed, and they just kind of run their course and come back. Is that right? Or they crash, and that's planned, right? But we're getting to the point now where I hear a lot of these things are actually operated by somebody, right? They're in control the entire time, and they're recoverable.

Ben Bowlin: Yes. That's a great point. The reason we're talking a little bit about the history of the UAVs is just to establish that these are not some sort of magic ace in the hole that the U.S. pulled out of nowhere. I'm not saying we don't have very smart scientist. I'm saying, actually, that we have brilliant scientists who spend a lot of time thinking about what others have tried, what works, and what doesn't. A lot of people don't know there is a history to this technology. Let's fast forward and go into the present stuff now. You were talking about someone actually being around controlling it.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. Who flies these things?

Ben Bowlin: We fly them. Soldiers fly them. Soldiers actually fly them from a remote station, like a ground control station, and the interface with it in a way that would remind a lot of non-military people of video games.

Scott Benjamin: That's something I've heard a little bit about recently, that the military is very interested in a certain group of youngsters, I guess.

Ben Bowlin: Gamers.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, the gamers. That's right. They're the ones they're targeting for saying, "You've got the skills, the hand-eye coordination that we need in this exact position." Somebody who's a little bit older than you that may not be that adept at something like this, because you've grown up playing video games! If you're a 20-something, you've probably had video game controls in your hands your whole life. Here's one that's real life. Big stakes, of course, and it's a lot different I'm sure. You still need the same skill set, right?

Ben Bowlin: You do need a lot of the same skills. You need to have quick reflexes. Of course, you want to have hand-eye coordination precise enough to make sure you can manipulate the controls while you're still looking at the input of whatever data you have coming in. One thing that is a little bit different here. you know how when we hear about drones in the news or something, it seems like a drone is this sort of silent lone wolf that's cruising through the sky at altitudes unfamiliar to man somehow. That's an exaggerated view because, you know how when we talked about tanks, you can't really deploy a tank by itself and expect things to always go well.

Scott Benjamin: Yes.

Ben Bowlin: You can't really expect the same with the drone. Drones operate in units. There are four drones, and there's the ground control center. Then there's a satellite uplink so they can relay the information from the control center to the drones, and then also view satellite capabilities.

Scott Benjamin: Okay.

Ben Bowlin: To see the ground.

Scott Benjamin: This is like visual reconnaissance type information.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. There's a lot of reconnaissance because the main reason these are so effective is they remove an entire possibility of casualties. At the very worst, if a drone is shot down or blown up, then there's not an extra dead pilot. There's somebody who is pretty far away a lot of times. I don't want to minimize it, but what they do is they can take another drone out and put it in the air in a very short time and just send it back in.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. So game over for a short time!

Ben Bowlin: Um hm. Since the 1990s, the Department of Defense has spent billions of dollars researching these.

Scott Benjamin: One quick thing here. How far away are these things from the operator? What's the maximum distance they can operate at? The way you hear about it, it's so removed. It's so distant, but is it closer than we think? Is it relatively nearby?

Ben Bowlin: That's a really good point. Sometimes we would see it as the operator sitting in Washington D.C. in a bunker somewhere in Langley, Virginia, but that's not the case. They do have an impressive radius. It's about 400 nautical miles.

Scott Benjamin: That's a long distance. I wasn't thinking it was anywhere near that far.

Ben Bowlin: The whole point is to keep these pilots removed from combat. Also, it probably eliminates some of the potential for human error by having them safely away operating vicariously.

Scott Benjamin: So one quick thing. You said "pilot." So a drone operator is a pilot? I won't blame you if you don't know the direct answer to this, but that was interesting. For some reason, when I think of somebody sitting in a control center with a joystick, and they're controlling - or whatever the controls are - I don't know why I don't think of that as a pilot, but I guess they really are, aren't they?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: They 're piloting a drone.

Ben Bowlin: They're piloting a drone.

Scott Benjamin: They're just not in the aircraft they're piloting. That's so strange. It's such a strange thing to think about.

Ben Bowlin: It's a strange thing, but it hasn't happened in warfare to this level before.

Scott Benjamin: I don't mean to stump you. It's really weird. I would say you could call them pilots.

Ben Bowlin: Absolutely. I know what we probably want to get into are some of the things we use.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, what's the purpose of them? We talked about reconnaissance.

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: There are the kind that just have cameras and just have data-gathering software installed, cameras, and recording devices. What else is out there? What can they do?

Ben Bowlin: Let me tell you, my friend, about the MQ1 Predator.

Scott Benjamin: What's that?

Ben Bowlin: It's an unmanned drone that started in 1996. It first saw some action in 1999. They've been used for surveillance, but they also can carry weapons, namely hellfire missiles, I believe, but they're considered lightly arm. If you have a B2 bomber or something, it has tremendous destructive capabilities.

Scott Benjamin: I don't know, Ben. A drone carrying a hellfire missile? That sounds pretty destructive to me.

Ben Bowlin: I know. It's the world's worst paper airplane.

Scott Benjamin: It's crazy. I had no idea they could carry missiles and things like that. I didn't know it was possible.

Ben Bowlin: The Reaper. I've heard the same things you've heard about unmanned aerial vehicles. I've also seen the footage where the guy kind of throws it off, like a fancy radio-controlled airplane. You can't do that with this one. It's 66 feet wide wingtip to wingtip.

Scott Benjamin: Whoa.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. Just for comparison, the Predator is a little under 50 feet.

Scott Benjamin: Wow. That's still big.

Ben Bowlin: They gotta carry missiles.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. I always thought of drones as being really small.

Ben Bowlin: The reconnaissance ones can be small.

Scott Benjamin: Okay.

Ben Bowlin: It weighs a little less than 5,000 pounds, the Reaper that is. That's if it's not carrying anything. It can carry more stuff. It can carry over 3,500 pounds.

Scott Benjamin: No kidding. That's not terribly bad. It's 66 feet long. That's huge - well, wide, I guess. Wingtip to wi ngtip. You're talking 8,500 pounds total or something like that.

Ben Bowlin: Then also 4,000 pounds of fuel - 602 gallons. This is still so much lighter than a manned aircraft.

Scott Benjamin: Is it?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, because it doesn't have any of the stuff you have to have to get a person up there flying it.

Scott Benjamin: To keep a human alive up at that height.

Ben Bowlin: Right. There's no cockpit. There's none of the life support functions.

Scott Benjamin: No drink tray? No drink cart?

Ben Bowlin: There is a drink cart.

Scott Benjamin: That's good. I can't imagine a flight without a drink cart.

Ben Bowlin: It can be armed. More of what we see the U.S. military doing now is trying to use technology in a smart way. We see a lot of other militaries doing that too. The Reaper has the ability to be sort of adapted, depending on its mission. M is multipurpose or multiuse. If it's just doing reconnaissance for some reason, then it would have a kit that doesn't need to factor in all the possible weaponry, but if it's on an offensive mission, then it can be fitted with different weaponry depending on the situation it's going into. It normally carries these bombs called GBU 12s. Before you ask, I'm not sure what it stands for.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. Got it.

Ben Bowlin: They're huge. They're 500 pounds.

Scott Benjamin: Really? Five-hundred-pound bombs. How many of these does it carry?

Ben Bowlin: They're laser guided.

Scott Benjamin: Cool, laser-guided bombs.

Ben Bowlin: It depends on the mission how many they carry. Set me up for this one, buddy. Ask me what we do with the Reaper in the future.

Scott Benjamin: Okay, Ben, so what do we do with these in the future?

Ben Bowlin: I am so glad you asked. Check it out. We don't know.

Scott Benjamin: Thanks for all the info.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: I appreciate it.

Ben Bowlin: It's just because this is a very - it's an old idea, but it's very new in this level of practicality, in this level of practice. We could have these things conceivably just in the air for hours. You can just switch off the soldier in the command unit, the ground control unit, and you can keep those things in the air until they literally run out of fuel.

Scott Benjamin: Autopilot. So these things are running on fuel. They've got batteries, of course.

Ben Bowlin: They're hybrid vehicles.

Scott Benjamin: They could just kind of hover around until needed, and then use them for whatever purpose we had intended them for, right?

Ben Bowlin: Um hm.

Scott Benjamin: Interesting. Do you happen to have any idea how long they stay in the air, or how long they can stay in the air, or anything like that? Does it even tell us?

Ben Bowlin: That is something I'm not too sure about.

Scott Benjamin: That's the thing. A lot of the stuff - we'd like to give you a lot more information about certain things, and some things you just can't find an answer to because they're being real tight-lipped about it. Military issues are always like this. Remember the tanks? We could only say so much about them. Then there's a point that it says, "That information is not available." I think that's the case with a lot of this drone stuff. You want more. Maybe it's just not something you can dig up right at this time. Maybe in ten years you'll be able to find out what's going on right now, but you wouldn't know what's happening in present day.

Ben Bowlin: Ideally, we, being the U.S. military, would want drones 24 hours a day, if possible. It is possible as long as they land and refuel, at least the Reaper, the big one. This is our T-rex.

Scott Benjamin: Sure.

Ben Bowlin: This is the whale.

Scott Benjamin: The ultimate predator.

Ben Bowlin: That's a good one. They're operated. They actually have two people operating them. You know how if you are a sniper, you have a spotter? If you're a pilot for a reaper, another person will be monitoring the sensor systems. That's their job entirely, because that's a lot for one person. You've got one person concentrating on the plane. You've got another person concentrating on the information.

Scott Benjamin: That's pretty typical in a fighter situation anyway, right?

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: You have two people. One's monitoring everything else, weather condition, altitude. The other one's flying the mission and trying to hit the target. That's not unusual. I don't know. I didn't expect that in the drone for some reason. I thought a lot of that stuff would be automated versus having a human sit there and monitor that stuff, but I guess you can never take that out of it, right?

Ben Bowlin: Right. If you take the human part of this completely out, eventually - this is an excellent time to talk about this. We'd be sort of remiss if we didn't bring up the fact that drones are very, very controversial in several ways. The primary way in which they're controversial is this threat of automation. What would happen, for instance, if in the future there is a large war that is fought largely by automated things? We could possibly have, if technology goes to some crazy degree, a war fought entirely through proxy machines by people who do not leave their area.

Scott Benjamin: A casualty-free war.

Ben Bowlin: That's the problem.

Scott Benjamin: On one side.

Ben Bowlin: Right, unless both sides are armed with this kind of technology, because another criticism that the U.S. military has received for use of drones has been deaths of civilians. The question then becomes are the people who are operating this vicariously - now you recall - we're getting old now - a few years back, there aware some very loud and valid criticisms of video games.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: And how they desensitized children allegedly. If that problem is real, then people would make a similar argument about people piloting drones. I'm not adv ocating that. I personally play video games, and I don't think I'm a desensitized sociopath. I have yet to strangle a cat.

Scott Benjamin: Word around the office...I'm not going to say anymore.

Ben Bowlin: Maybe you shouldn't. Maybe today will be the day I break. There are criticisms, and the response to these criticisms by the U.S. military, and by any military that would be using these kinds of devices, is that we're trying to save the lives of people in our military, and we're trying to - of course we're not going out there to kill the civilians. That's not the point of this sort of operation.

Scott Benjamin: Understood. This is a "protect your own" situation. I get it.

Ben Bowlin: Again, it is chiefly reconnaissance, but we wouldn't be giving you a good episode if we didn't at least touch on something that maybe some people don't know so much about drones, which is that they are tremendously controversial. You can kind of think of another very controversial thing of war would be a landmine, for instance.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: The question really comes down to the ability to protect American soldiers, the ability to protect the soldiers of whichever military uses these, because it's not always going to be something the U.S. possesses. This sort of technology is so much bang for your buck, and it's in its infancy now, but it will easily become the future of aerial warfare.

Scott Benjamin: I could also see people saying that you're so far removed from the battlefield; you're in an air-conditioned trailer, wherever you are, a command center, and it totally takes you out of the situation of what's really happening there. I'm not laughing about it. It's like you're really playing a video game. You're playing on a screen, and you're not really understanding the situation that's happening there on the ground. You're not understanding or seeing the results of it, really. You come in, you fly your mission, and you're gone. You don't really see the raw effects of that, I guess. A lot of people might say that it too far removes the person from the emotional side of what's really happening in war. Is that really a bad thing? I guess not. If that's the mission anyway - if that mission was going to be, it's going to happen no matter what. Maybe it's not so bad to spare somebody the emotional trauma as well. It's a bit removed in that situation. Does that make any sense?

Ben Bowlin: That does.

Scott Benjamin: It takes you out of the game, really, in a way.

Ben Bowlin: Right. Really, I wouldn't call it a game specifically, but that's a good point. If you are based in the ground - and these guys can be based in Baghdad and flying out! In that case, when they have completed a mission, they can't leave. They're still on tour. They have to stand back, but they could also be in Nevada, for instance, using a satellite relay.

Scott Benjamin: I see.

Ben Bowlin: I think there really is a debate about this, but we can't avoid the fact that now that drones exist, they are inevitably going to become more and more mainstream parts of military stuff just because they're able to do things that people, human soldiers, cannot do safely. The thing you hear about the most when you hear these criticisms, you hear three things. You hear that they desensitize operators, and maybe even the American public. You hear that they may, as a result of that, result in civilian deaths. The argument can be made the other way that they actually prevent civilian deaths because they're able to free themselves of some of the human error that would occur. The third one and the one that's the most conspiracy theory is the idea of assassinations, so specifically looking for, like we talked about earlier, high-value targets. This CIA in 2002 had a couple times find Al Qaeda terrorists, even down to specific individuals, and they've been able to assassinate them using a Predator, actually.

Scott Benjamin: Wow.

Ben Bowlin: Now, these things are very rare. You can't think of it like a movie scene assassination, but the thing is that they have this tremendous ability to do what's called force projection. They can move faster than most manned flight systems because you seriously don't have to wait for a pilot. You don't have to wait for them to sleep. You can just switch the teams out. Like it or not, I think drones are here to stay, and we're probably going to see more and more unmanned vehicles, and maybe even unmanned ground vehicles, like robotic tanks.

Scott Benjamin: No kidding. Interesting.

Ben Bowlin: We don't know really where this'll go. Hopefully it'll result in a world where war is not necessary.

Scott Benjamin: Very good, Ben.

Ben Bowlin: I was trying to end it on a good note.

Scott Benjamin: That's good, because we kind of took it down there at the end. You told me a lot more about drones than I knew. Do you have any more? I didn't want to cut you off there. I just had no idea of all of that. I knew the controversy, and like I said, I thought drones were small. I thought they were strictly reconnaissance. I didn't know they were carrying missiles.

Ben Bowlin: I would say chiefly reconnaissance. You're not off base.

Scott Benjamin: You've opened my eyes here to this. They're kind of cool. I want to take a look at the Predator, and what was the other one?

Ben Bowlin: The Reaper. That's the big one. Then don't forget the other smaller ones. You can see the evolution. You can actually find some photographs and stuff on the web about the unmanned aerial vehicle's history.

Scott Benjamin: You've given me a cutaway with some of the components, and all the sensors, and the satellite up-feed information, and the fuel cell assembly.

Ben Bowlin: Isn't it crazy that they're hybrids. They have batteries, and they have engines.

Scott Benjamin: That is crazy. Hybrid vehicles high above. Something like that.

Ben Bowlin: I gotta tell you, before we get out of here, I saw the funniest thing. I was looking for some ammunition about flying cars to make a reference to in this episode, and I saw this thing. It said, "I'm so tired of people talking about 2010, and saying, 'Hey, it's 2010. Where are the flying cars?' It's like, we already have them. They're called planes."

Scott Benjamin: Good point. Ben, you know how to push my buttons on that, don't you?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. I thought you would like that, because it turns out that I was being nerdy about it.

Scott Benjamin: I know it, but just hearing the words, those two words get me.

Ben Bowlin: Okay. If you guys want to find us, please don't type too much stuff about flying cars.

Scott Benjamin: Nothing about flying cars.

Ben Bowlin: On our Facebook, which is CarStuff?

Scott Benjamin: Just cars, not flying cars.

Ben Bowlin: Okay. Maybe that's the name of our show: Just Cars.

Scott Benjamin: Maybe.

Ben Bowlin: You can also find us on Twitter at CarStuffHSW.

Scott Benjamin: That's where we like to talk about cars, not flying cars.

Ben Bowlin: Okay. I think I see where you're going. You defi nitely are not going to find too much positive information on flying cars on Scott's blog, which is nevertheless awesome. You will find information about flying cars on our website on our auto channel. You'll also find information about anything from drones to - what else do we have on there?

Scott Benjamin: Asparagus.

Ben Bowlin: We have asparagus. It's not in the auto section.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, the auto section. You had to clarify.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, but you can find asparagus too.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's there too. But hot rods, choppers, unusual cars, hybrid cars!

Ben Bowlin: How to take care of your car.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, yeah. We've got all kinds of things. Really, search anything, and it's likely to come up with something.

Ben Bowlin: In the unlikely event that you do not find what you're looking for, or you have a suggestion for us for an upcoming episode, go ahead and drop us a line electronically at -

Scott Benjamin: CarStuff@HowStuffWorks.com.

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