* The speed with which unmanned aircraft capabilities have advanced in recent years has been astonishing.
The expanding applications of these systems are evidenced in the terminology change that has been ushered in over the last two years. What were previously known as "unmanned aircraft vehicles" and "remotely piloted vehicles" are now characterized as "unmanned aircraft systems." This designation encompasses not only the aircraft, but also a diverse set of sensors and weapons, remote pilot and sensor operators, data links and the associated architectures that enable remote control of the aircraft, transmission of the data collected, and the processing facilities and personnel that receive, exploit and disseminate the resultant intelligence.
The latter, critical link in the chain is too often discounted or forgotten altogether. Yet, it is the ability to leverage these robust analysis centers, maintained outside the combat theater, that gives unmanned aircraft an invaluable "reach-back" capability.
It should therefore come as no surprise that unmanned systems are the combatant commander's most requested capability. They are used to meet critical time sensitive targeting and surveillance needs in combat, to include security and stability operations, as well as domestic incident awareness assessments to provide local authorities and first responders information necessary to protect American lives and resources during natural disasters.
The most recent example of the latter occurred during the October 2007 wildfires in southern California. At that time the Global Hawk was called upon to provide California civil authorities and firefighters near-real time, high-resolution imagery. The aircraft were flown out of Beale Air Force Base, Calif., where the analysis facility also conducted the required imagery exploitation. This marked the first use of the Global Hawk in a tasking to assist civil authorities by operating over our homeland, and it will certainly not be the last.
Another milestone in domestic employment of unmanned aircraft was the Air Force demonstrating the ability to conduct these missions in full compliance with U.S. laws governing intelligence oversight and posse comitatus, which protects the constitutional rights and privacy of U.S. residents. The domestic Global Hawk employment presented the opportunity to exercise procedural agreements and linkages between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)--the regulating authority for U. …