In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs have received more attention and more funding from the U.S. military, as well as from Israel, several European nations and Russia, as a cheaper alternative to manned aircraft for a variety of missions.

The trend is only accelerating as a growing list of countries turn to UAVs for their military potential. Even civil and commercial users are beginning to weigh the costs and benefits of UAVs for other uses, experts said.

“The whole thing about the operation of UAVs is that it isn’t so exotic anymore,” said Larry Dickerson, an unmanned systems analyst for Forecast International Inc. of Newtown, Conn. “People are becoming more comfortable with the whole idea, to a point.”

UAVs are just beginning to be exploited for uses beyond military surveillance, according to experts, and are being groomed to become faster, more reliable and to have enhanced capabilities.

The international landscape

While the United States has equipped some of its UAVs, such as the Predator, with weapons, others rely on UAVs for less exotic missions. “The difference between the U.S. UAV programs and the programs we see in other countries is that elsewhere, the emphasis is very much on surveillance,” said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The UAV is a cheap way for them to duplicate the surveillance capabilities the U.S. can get from satellites. They haven’t looked as closely at weaponization; at least, no one is admitting that in public.”

There has been an increase in interest in UAVs in countries in Asia and the Middle East, according to Dickerson.

“There’s a much larger number of countries coming out and actually saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to pursue UAVs,” Dickerson said.

Japan is looking at producing a high-end UAV system which can do over-ocean surveillance and high-altitude surveillance, while countries like South Korea and Taiwan are hoping to build long-endurance vehicles that can be used over international airspace, he said.

“You’re also seeing more cooperation at the high-end between countries,” Dickerson said. As countries look to equip their UAVs with additional capabilities, companies from different countries that produce them might choose to pair with each other to develop a particular project.

Improving technologies

UAV usage may be growing, and their capabilities are increasing, but their bodies are actually getting smaller, Dickerson said. Companies are attempting to produce lightweight (2-5 kilogram), portable UAVs that could be hand launched or launched off of a small truck.

Experts agreed that the U.S. Army wants to see more easily deployed vehicles with increased combat capabilities. They also want to be able to use multiple UAVs together to perform certain tasks in formation.

“The whole thing is: ‘Make it do more,’” Dickerson said.

But as the use of UAVs becomes more prevalent , the amount of bandwidth necessary to keep them functioning becomes a problem, he said.

“UAVs are actually interfering with each other,” Dickerson said. “It’s escalating slowly. That’s going to be a technology problem we’ll have to address just because there’s so much noise up there.”

As shooting capabilities increase, though, users are going to have to do a cost/benefit analysis of whether the vehicles are worth the added expense.

“The problem is, that adds to the weight and the cost and the technological difficulties, almost to where it gets more expensive than a regular manned vehicle,” said Victoria Samson, a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information here. “People have to ask themselves, ‘ OK , what benefit am I getting with a UAV with these added bells and whistles?’”

In terms of production, UAVs are still a market in which small companies can enter, Dickerson said, but the trend is shifting away from that direction.

“Now it’s coming to the point where UAV contracts are with the big companies,” Dickerson said. “As requirements are getting more complicated, the small companies are teaming their electronic expertise with deep-pocket backing.”