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The Military

Boeing Turning Old F-16s Into Unmanned Drones 239

Posted by Soulskill
from the i'll-order-a-dozen dept.
dryriver sends this news from the BBC: "Boeing has revealed that it has retrofitted retired fighter jets to turn them into drones. It said that one of the Lockheed Martin F-16s made a first flight with an empty cockpit last week. Two U.S. Air Force pilots controlled the plane from the ground as it flew from a Florida base to the Gulf of Mexico (video). Boeing suggested that the innovation could ultimately be used to help train pilots, providing an adversary they could practise firing on. The jet — which had previously sat mothballed at an Arizona site for 15 years — flew at an altitude of 40,000ft (12.2km) and a speed of Mach 1.47 (1,119mph/1,800km/h). It carried out a series of maneuvers including a barrel roll and a 'split S' — a move in which the aircraft turns upside down before making a half loop so that it flies the right-way-up in the opposite direction. This can be used in combat to evade missile lock-ons. Boeing said the unmanned F-16 was followed by two chase planes to ensure it stayed in sight, and also contained equipment that would have allowed it to self-destruct if necessary. The firm added that the flight attained 7Gs of acceleration but was capable of carrying out maneuvers at 9Gs — something that might cause physical problems for a pilot. 'It flew great, everything worked great, [it] made a beautiful landing — probably one of the best landings I've ever seen,' said Paul Cejas, the project's chief engineer."
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Boeing Turning Old F-16s Into Unmanned Drones

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  • Such a noble and iconic aircraft turned into a play toy.

    50 years from now it will seem like the Air Force scrapping P-51s.

    • Re:Sacrilege (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vtcodger (957785) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @05:29PM (#44942231)

      If memory serves me correctly, there's nothing all that new here. Back around 1960, the USAF was flying radio controlled WWII bombers out over the Gulf of Mexico to use in interception tests. Same thing, today? Better technology.

    • by osu-neko (2604)
      It spent the last 15 years sitting in a glorified junkyard. That's a greater sacrilege than having these birds in the skies again, regardless of the pilots' location...
    • by sycodon (149926)

      Put another way, in 50 years, at airshows, we will be seeing an F-16 flying and the announcer will say it's one of the last X flying examples in the world.

      Sad.

    • by godel_56 (1287256)

      Such a noble and iconic aircraft turned into a play toy.

      If I recall correctly the F16 was a Tier 2 fighter, specifically designed to be cheap to buy and cheap to run — quantity was a higher priority than capability, as least compared with its larger two-engined brethren. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but "noble and iconic" seems a bit much.

    • by imsabbel (611519)

      The F16 was always the bargain bin little sister of the F15 (the "real" fighter jet).

      Its main appeal was that it was _cheap_, not that it was good.

  • While we are on topic, what would prevent an enemy missile from having an onboard jamming unit to jam the control signals coming from a remote pilot to the plane? Does == ? Or are these planes equipped with a Borg shield adaption (i.e. rotate frequency) mechanism that makes jamming very difficult?
    • by Lumpy (12016)

      Physics.

      the onboard jammer would have to be HUGE to affect anything outside of a short range, or the thing would have to be on top of it, so you might as well just use a heat seeking missile and blow it up.

      • by vux984 (928602)

        I think that's his thought... jam the plane when you get close to it. Just how close does it have to get? If the drone remote operator can't fire counter measures and take evasive action once the missile is within X meters due to jamming, the missile is going to have a much easier time hitting the target.

        • Jamming is dangerous. Start jamming something and you are going to get an ALARM or a HARM right up your antenna.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-radiation_missile [wikipedia.org]

          • by JWSmythe (446288)

            From the evil dictator perspective...

            If I knew jamming would make me a target, I'd put jammers out in remote locations, so they'd waste their ordinance on worthless targets.

            • From the Countermeasures Department, Evil Dictator Removal Group:

              We find your remote jammers, land some special ops troops and jack into your control systems.

              Have a nice day. What's left of it, anyway.

          • by vux984 (928602)

            You realize we're speculating about a short range jammer right on a missile itself right? Not sure HARM etc really applies here.

          • Imagine the jammers are less expensive than ALARMS or HARMS and there are dozens of them flying around.

      • by rickb928 (945187)

        It doesn't have to be big at all. Within a few miles of the drone, around 100W would be enough to swamp a satellite link. Get the jammer high enough, it can radiate down and cause trouble, IF it can find a way to render the link unusable for a few moments. At the right time. Like when the drone is maneuvering towards the ground. Assuming the drone doesn't have a failsafe to survive loss of comm and avoid the ground. Of course then, if it's headless, it will need some intelligence to avoid the ground fi

    • what would prevent an enemy missile from having an onboard jamming unit to jam the control signals coming from a remote pilot to the plane?

      Anti-radiation missiles. Any source transmitting with enough power to jam the signal would be a very conspicuous and short lived target.

      • by mirix (1649853)

        My Serbian friends have told me that a $50 microwave with the door taken off can destroy a $200k HARM.

        Sounds like urban legend to me, but, pretty comical if true. You'd think Raytheon would be out deploying microwaves if it were the case.

    • by rickb928 (945187)

      You can count on it, both airborne jammers and ground-based.

      And when 'they' figure out where the ground facilities are, and the uplinks, expect to see vans packed with goodies trying to jam there also.

      For the drone wars, SAMs and AAMs are the secondary threats. Communications will be the primary weakness, and the effort is surely underway to degrade or defeat that. Obvious tactic.

      And equally obvious to secure the command link, even if the video feeds aren't. At least until the little buggers become autono

    • by gd2shoe (747932)
      Think about how jamming works. You shine a great big light in the same frequency that the receiver is trying to listen in on. If the design team is thinking about this contingency, suddenly you've got a great way to measure the location of a particular class of AA missile. (for evasive maneuvers or for counter fire)
  • by BoRegardless (721219) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @05:25PM (#44942209)

    & using near obsolete aircraft to boot at low cost. What is not to like?

    • by icebike (68054)

      Near obsolete?
      These are still very capable aircraft, with a wide variety of weapon systems [wikimedia.org].
      They exceed the capabilities of all but two or three nations, and we have them in numbers, both on active duty and in reserve [google.com].

      Don't right them off as obsolete yet.

      • by Nimey (114278)

        I don't think TFA said what version of F-16 this was. Might have been an A model, which for all practical purposes is obsolescent.

        The pictured F-16 looks to have the old-style air intake for the F100 engine, fwiw.

        • by icebike (68054)

          Well as one of the first reliable fly by wire planes, I could believe they would start with an old airframe for simplicity, one they can actually afford to lose. They may actually use one or two of these as targets, but not for any of the stated reasons. Training fighter pilots no longer requires actually shooting something down.

          Trying new munitions, maybe laser weapons, maybe.

          My money is still on heavy ordinance delivery, in highly contested territory.

  • The U.S. military (Navy and Air Force, especially) has been repurposing obsolete aircraft as radio controlled target drones since not long after WWII. The only newsworthy part of this story is that they landed the F-16 after putting it through its paces. Previous target drones were intentionally one use only.

    Cheers,
    Dave

    • by Deadstick (535032)

      Previous target drones were intentionally one use only.

      Au contraire. The Air Force and the Navy both had F-86's modified so they could be flown either by a live pilot or by RC. The Navy had a squadron of them, called QF-86's, in California that provided drone services for all military users on the West Coast.

      Pilots would make a number of unarmed sorties against live-pilot machines to practice the techniques, then take a few actual shots at unmanned ones. Live-fire missions were done out over the water, so if a drone was damaged and unsafe to land, they could s

      • by rickb928 (945187)

        And F-100s, F-104s, F-4s. Probably others I won't bother to look up.

        No, not new, not even a new purpose. Unless they shoot back. And a cheap way to develop the concept of unmanned fighters. Which are inevitable.

    • by icebike (68054)

      If you believe this is to be uses as a target drone, I have a Bridge in San Francisco I'd like to sell you.

    • The only newsworthy part of this story is that they landed the F-16 after putting it through its paces

      That rather depends on whether you believe these are going to be used as 'target drones' or drones that take out 'targets'.

      We literally have thousands of F-15 and F-16's either in mothballs now or scheduled to be decommissioned in the near future.

      • The only newsworthy part of this story is that they landed the F-16 after putting it through its paces

        That rather depends on whether you believe these are going to be used as 'target drones' or drones that take out 'targets'.

        We literally have thousands of F-15 and F-16's either in mothballs now or scheduled to be decommissioned in the near future.

        And if we've had the ability to fly these (or other similar obsolete fighters like F-4s and F-14s) on one way missions for decades, why haven't we turned them into attack drones already? We've used F-4s as target drones so the technology for remote control is there.

        Simple answer: we don't need that capability any more than we need to bring back WWII era battleships.

        What our current drones do that repurposed old fighter planes don't do is have fantastic, unrefueled loiter time. There are reasons why Predat

  • by lophophore (4087) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @05:38PM (#44942327) Homepage

    This is the future of aerial combat. No need to risk a pilot's life, no need for a $400,000,000 F-22 Raptor, if you can turn at 9G, you can outperform just about anything with a human being in it.

    I'm all for it. Take them all out of mothballs and make them all into drones.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Soon. Mothballed Spitfire drones above the Channel, to prevent the mothballed Messerschmitts drones of the EU from causing uproar in the parliament, lower house. "Ballsy move" was the statement received from the Buckingham Palace about the drone situation.

      • by BlueStrat (756137)

        Soon. Mothballed Spitfire drones above the Channel, to prevent the mothballed Messerschmitts drones of the EU from causing uproar in the parliament, lower house. "Ballsy move" was the statement received from the Buckingham Palace about the drone situation.

        Look out for the Mistels!

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkLvyXY1LV0 [youtube.com]

        Strat

    • Yeah, but the problem with aerial warfare has always been spotting the other pilots first. No amount of cameras is going to fix that problem. I don't remember the exact stat, but 80% or so of planes shot down in combat never saw the guy before he shot, and a large percentage of the rest were close to level (didn't have much time to react).

      Maybe AWACS technology has leapfrogged but we'll never know until the next war. I'd hate to commit to drones then find out they're (F)ishbait under the fog of war.

    • Don't be too sure about that, even now fighter pilots can bend the airframe while maneuvering.

  • But Charlie says that's the last thing you should do.
  • The drones as used by the US now a days are on very long loiter and patrol missions. More than six hours. Fighters have limited range, limited loiter time, and limited combat time. F16 drones might be very good research platforms, but not very useful operationally. Further drone pilots like the stable slow reacting planes. May be there are some training opportunities with a fast agile plane as drone. But still it operational use is not very clear.
    • by Nidi62 (1525137)

      The drones as used by the US now a days are on very long loiter and patrol missions. More than six hours. Fighters have limited range, limited loiter time, and limited combat time. F16 drones might be very good research platforms, but not very useful operationally. Further drone pilots like the stable slow reacting planes. May be there are some training opportunities with a fast agile plane as drone. But still it operational use is not very clear.

      Drone fighter aircraft would be perfect in a Wild Weasel type of role.

  • by bobbied (2522392) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @06:15PM (#44942659)

    Um.. this is NOT new. I used to work at a Naval Aviation Depot where they where making F-4's into radio controlled target drones way back in the 80's. The radio controls where a bit more basic, but the Navy still used them for target practice with live ammo. I remember that after the controls where fitted, some lucky test pilot would get to sit in the aircraft and watch while the guys on the ground tested things.

    So, been there, done that.... Have a T-Shirt.

    • by ShakaUVM (157947)

      Yep. My dad was part of the group that converted F4s into target dummies.

      People would sit on the ground with a grown-up RC remote control and pilot them around as targets for human-piloted planes to shoot down.

    • Fighter pilots are done.

      Somewhere, someone is running (or should be running) hundreds, thousands, and millions of simulations of air combat simulations training AI techniques. There's hundreds of billions of dollars at stake there.

      The computer can monitor all the inputs, and make the best decision and best move, always. Computers can fight in formation perfectly synchronized in real time. Computers don't have egos.

      It's taken a little longer, but ultimately - air combat is a exotic game of chess, and we know

  • They've been doing this for years with old F-4s for target practice over the Gulf. Must be running out of lead sleds. QF-4 [avionics-i...igence.com]
    • by timeOday (582209)
      Indeed: "After 13 years, the number of F-4 airframes at AMARG that may be droned without excessive rework is shrinking. Moreover, the QF-4's ability to represent the performance and signatures of modern fighter aircraft decreases with each new design that appears. The QF-4's successor as a full-scale target looks set to be the QF-16, starting around 2014." Cite [fencecheck.com]
  • A good fit (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sootman (158191) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @06:29PM (#44942787) Homepage Journal

    The F-16 is difficult to fly due to its natural instability. [wikipedia.org] It's a good candidate to be operated by a computer. (I mean, it can be told where to go by a human, but the second-to-second flying should be handled by a machine.)

    • by Nimey (114278)

      That was a deliberate design choice. The '16 is fly-by-wire, which needs computer control /anyway/, so they opted for the increased maneuverability that dynamic instability can give.

  • Waiting for the drone communications jammers to start coming out. Drone isn't very useful without a communications link.

  • Welcome back to the future F-16 is the new DeLorean.

    Manned fighter or Drone? U can't tell.

    Neither drone nor manned fighter, https nor nsa and reporter or terrorist neither...armed and dangerous all

  • by gatkinso (15975) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @07:47PM (#44943337)

    They were flying these years ago. I am sure the F-16 drones are much improved... but it basically the same thing.

  • Drone: an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drone [merriam-webster.com]

  • It's sad that after NSA, IRS etc. we're all so jaded we can't just enjoy this as something cool. A remote control plane that's an F-16. That's pretty badass.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled realism about the government.

Nothing will dispel enthusiasm like a small admission fee. -- Kim Hubbard

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