On December 17, 1903 the Wright Brothers demonstrated the first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. Over the next 100 years the airplane has become nearly as common as the car. In more recent years unmanned systems have been replacing human-at-the-controls systems in many parts of the world. Proof of this comes from many airports where transit systems run autonomously, from battlefields where systems are being employed to reduce the human expose to danger, and from the myriad remotely controlled toys that pepper our children’s toy boxes.

Unmanned systems come in a very wide variety of shapes and sizes with the intended purpose often driving a unique solution. This page is intended to act as a primer for some and a translator for others. It will explain some commonly used terms and acronyms while bridging the gap between military, government, and civil language.

The Unmanned Aircraft System Explained

In the simplest sense an unmanned system is anything that is operated via a remote control. But it goes beyond the hardware that is moving/doing – it encompasses the system operator, the remote control device, and the communications link that connects the system. It is likely that remote access and remote control are more widespread than you think. The basic system architecture of a child’s remote controlled car and a military operated remotely piloted aircraft are the same. A remote controlled car has the car, a remote control, an operator, and uses a simple communications link to connect controller to car. The US Air Force Predator unmanned system retains those same major components: the Predator MQ-1 aircraft, the various communications links that are available for command and control, a pilot, and a ground control station where the pilot controls the aircraft.

The UAV Control Loop

One key aspect of the unmanned system is changing where the operator manages the system. The control loop describes the way the unmanned system is controlled – data is collected on system performance (measure speed, measure height, measure temperature, measure battery strength), the data is analyzed (going too fast, too close to the ground, too hot, too weak), a decision is made on the data (slow down, gain altitude, cool off, get more battery power), and action is taken (apply brakes, pull the nose of the airplane up, open a window to let cooling air in, activate backup battery). In this control loop the system operator can be an active or passive participant. When you are driving your car you are hopefully an active participant – if you are driving too fast you apply the brake. If you are driving a remote controlled car you are still an active participant but acting remotely (through a communications link) – if the car is driving too fast you must still take action to slow it down.

In these examples the operator is considered to sit inside the control loop because the system is not designed to function independent of the operator. In more advanced remote systems like an airport transit system a system operator may simply monitor performance and intervene only in case of emergency – in cases like this the operator is considered to sit on the control loop because the ability is there to intervene but control access is more limited.