Are Canadian UFOs actually military drones?
Are those lights in the sky actually Canadian military drones? We get mail, and this question came to us from J. in Gatineau. We’re not exactly sure about the specifics of “those lights,” but it seems like a reasonable question. At least, it seems to be a more reasonable hypothesis than one based on alien visitation. It’s also an appropriate question for our group since we have contacts in both the Canadian Army and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) community.
Do the Canadian Forces (CF) have UAVs? If so, are they being flown over my house? And is one of them watching me read this article right now? We interviewed “unnamed sources close to the investigation” and risked a visit from men-in-black to find out.
“Drone” is an ominous sounding word. It was commonly used back when these devices were employed as air defence targets, but you still hear it used in the media today. Since then, the terms remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and the politically correct “uninhabited” aerial vehicle have joined the lexicon. Today, the devices are officially called “unmanned aircraft (UA)” or “unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)” if you include the ground stations, but “UAV” still predominates.
Canada helped pioneer UAVs. Canadair, later Bombardier, produced the CL-89 Midge in the 1960s and the CL-227 Sentinel (the “Flying Peanut”) in the 1980s. Yet, until the turn of the century, UAVs were limited in capability and expensive to operate. Only recently have composite materials, power sources, computing, networking, sensors and aviation design advanced to the point of making UAVs practical for extensive use, both in the military and commercial worlds. Now, the UAV industry is in the early, explosive stage of technological evolution. Some UAV types are cornering the market as best of breed, but across the board, UAV capabilities – duration, autonomy, sensor capability – are advancing at a rapid pace.
There are numerous ways of classifying UAVs. Transport Canada is considering three classes of UAVs based on Maximum Take-off Weight (MTOW) – (1) less than 35 kg, (2) 35-150 kg, and (3) more than 150 kg. For the military, a typical classification system is:
|Class||Level||Altitude (ft)||Radius (kms)||User||Example UAV|
|HALE||Strategic||Up to 65,000||10,000 (BLOS)||Strategic||Global Hawk|
|MALE||Operational – Theatre||Up to 40,000||3,700 (BLOS)||Joint – Task Force||Predator
|Tactical||Tactical – Formation||Up to 5,000||200 (LOS)||Brigade Task Force||Sperwer
|Small||Tactical – Unit||Up to 1,000||50 (LOS)||Battalion Task Force
|Mini||Tactical – Sub-unit||Up to 500||10 (LOS)||Company
|Micro||Tactical – Element||Up to 200||5 (LOS)||Platoon
HALE = High Altitude, Long Endurance
MALE = Medium Altitude, Long Endurance
Altitude = Mean Operating Altitude
Radius = Mission Radius
BLOS = Beyond Line-of-Sight
LOS = Line-of-Sight
Do the CF have UAVs?
Under such programs as the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) project, the CF have long-term plans for UAVs in Canada, such as using them for maritime and arctic surveillance, but currently, they are focused solely on operations in Afghanistan. A couple of UAV types (i.e., Sperwer and Skylark) were procured early on in the conflict. Since then, other nations with UAVs in theatre have taken to leasing systems as opposed to buying them outright. This way, contractors in theatre handle take-offs and landings, conduct maintenance and stave off system obsolescence, while the military focuses on flying the missions. The CF will likely do the same for their follow-on Small and the MALE UAVs.
The deliberate mix of UAV types is due to the differences in the systems’ capabilities and limitations. The higher-level UAVs can loiter over large areas of interest, carry large payloads, be weaponized and be flown by satellite link from a strategic facility back home, but they are expensive, require ground crews to operate and often share their operating time amongst many users. The lower-level UAVs can be dedicated to specific users and can be operated economically often by the users themselves, but they do not provide the persistence of a high-level, loitering UAV or the sophistication of some of the large sensor payloads. However, with technological advances, Small UAVs are approaching the capabilities of the MALEs, at a fraction of the operating cost.
- Tactical UAV – Sperwer. This large delta-wing UAV produced by Sagem is a venerable workhorse. It was procured in late 2003 and deployed almost immediately into the Afghan theatre. The ball turret sensor package provided a remarkably stable optical platform, but the UAV has proven too expensive to operate and maintain over time and does not have the “legs” needed for its missions. Its duties will soon be split between the new Small and MALE UAVs coming into theatre.
- Mini UAV – Skylark. This hand-launched UAV from Elbit was procured in 2006. It has had growing pains and takes a beating doing its job, but it fits the niche of providing task-specific sensor coverage for small tactical groups.
- Small UAV. The Land Force Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (LF ISTAR) project procured the Tactical and Mini UAVs and is poised to obtain a Small UAV, probably through a leasing arrangement. The Australian Army in Afghanistan, as an example, leases the Scan Eagle from Boeing-Insitu for their Small UAV niche.
- MALE UAV. In response to the Manley Report on Afghanistan, the CF are seeking to lease a MALE UAV for Afghanistan under Project Noctua. The leading contender for the contract was the Predator B until General Atomics pulled out of the competition, leaving the door open for systems such as Israeli Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Heron and Elbit’s Hermes 450.
Are the CF flying UAVs over my house?
The Sperwer and Skylark are the only UAVs that the CF have currently, except for a Silver Fox owned by the Navy on the east coast for R&D, and both these UAVs are flown exclusively in Afghanistan, except for operator training. So unless you live on the boundary of a CF training area, you are not being overflown by CF UAVs.
In any case, the thought of pilotless vehicles zipping through the same sky as normal aircraft is no minor concern for both pilots and Transport Canada. A UAV Working Group is studying the problem of integrating UAVs into civilian controlled airspace. The group has made recommendations, but the regulatory framework will probably not be in place until 2011 at the earliest. Until then, all UAV flights are authorized on a case-by-case basis using Special Flight Operation Certificates (SFOCs) submitted by the UAV operator and approved by Transport Canada.
Until regulations are in place, SFOCs are a risk management process for Transport Canada. What is the airworthiness of the UAV? How busy is the airspace in which it will fly, and how populated is the surrounding area? Up to what altitude will it be flying? How is the UAV being controlled? Will it remain in visual range of the operator? Will it have running lights? Will it have any sense-and-avoid technology? The section in Transport Canada that reviews and approves SFOCs also looks after ballooning, model airplanes, hang gliding, parachuting and soaring, so they are used to making these types of unconventional approval decisions.
Frequency management can also pose a problem. The availability of uplink and downlink frequencies is typically not a problem in remote theatres of operation around the world, but in the commercially dominated spectrum back home, the chances of these frequencies not already being allocated or not causing interference are slim. Frequency management can be more of a limitation to domestic UAV usage than airspace control.
Limiting UAV training flights in Canada to the Class F airspace over CF training areas is the CF’s way of mitigating these airspace integration and frequency management problems.
Are CF UAVs watching me read this article right now?
Typical tasks for military UAVs include surveillance, reconnaissance, combat search and rescue (CSAR), network/communications relay, mapping, aerial delivery/resupply, weapon attack, electronic attack and suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD). However, any of these tasks can be done by manned aircraft, helicopters and ground-based platforms. So when are UAVs used instead?
The common answer is that UAVs are best suited for missions that are “dull, dirty or dangerous.” That is, missions that are repetitive, routine and long in duration; subject to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) contamination; or vulnerable to enemy fire. UAVs may be expensive, but they are decidedly more dispensable than humans.
In a domestic context, many of these military tasks and many of the advantages of UAVs do not apply. Certainly, they can be useful for long duration, airborne surveillance, but even in this role, they have limitations. Typically, the sensor payload for a military UAV is an electro-optic/infra-red (EO/IR) sensor package, but from up in the sky, there is a lot of ground clutter to look at down here. A UAV’s sensor can track a vehicle or look at house, but it has to know where to look and then it’s like looking through a straw. The sensor has to be steered onto the target by a ground operator, and even then, the video will not reveal the target’s intent without offline analysis.
For surveillance, UAVs are best suited for remote areas, where target movement stands out, or on task-based missions, where the target’s specific location is anticipated. But, even for these tasks, users have to assess if an aircraft, helicopter, ground vehicle, person or ground-based sensor net could not do the job better or more economically. MALE UAVs can cost more than a thousand dollars per hour to operate compared to a small manned aircraft at a few hundred dollars per hour.
For an excellent overview of the capabilities and future of military UAVs, albeit from a US military perspective, see Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005–2030 (note 9MB download).
So if the CF are not flying UAV operations in domestic airspace and UAVs are problematic to use for surveillance because of airspace control, frequency management and cost effectiveness issues, are other Canadian government agencies flying UAVs in domestic airspace? That’s not a bad question given that the US Department of Homeland Security are doing it. The Department’s Customs and Border Protection Service are flying Predator A missions along the Mexican border in the US southwest, although they are receiving much criticism over their cost and effectiveness. Yet the answer for Canada is no. Neither the CBSA, RCMP, OPP, SQ nor other agencies have a current UAV program, though many of them will likely develop one in the near future when UAV services, cost and usability are more attractive.
Those Lights in the Sky
That is not to say that there are no UAVs being flown over the skies of the National Capital Area. Hobbyists can never be discounted. For example, we know of one OPP officer who uses his own model airplane to take aerial photos of crime scenes. He obtains an SFOC each time he does this, but we also know of local entrepreneurs who conduct aerial tests without bothering with authorizations.
All that to be said, how noticeable is a flying UAV? You would certainly be aware of a UAV taking off or landing if you were near the field, and engine noise can give them away at very low altitudes, but typically, they are a small profile in an immense sky. UAVs have been shot down in Iraq and Afghanistan, so detecting them is not impossible, especially when you have radar, but catching sight of one at operating altitude when you don’t know where and when to look is exceedingly difficult.
An important point to note is that, for UAVs, power efficiency equals flight duration and time on target. Power is not wasted, especially on lights. UAVs can have running lights if they are being specifically designed to fly in an integrated airspace, but they most certainly do not have searchlights. Nor do they need them. One of the reasons military UAVs have IR sensors is to observe at night. Not to mention that not having your UAV seen at night is good for its survival.
So are those lights in the sky actually Canadian military drones? No. Could they be some type of UAV? Possibly. They cannot be immediately ruled out, and in five to ten years, UAVs will be more prevalent. However, for now, if the lights are bright and distinct, then there are better conventional possibilities to check first.