Military Drones and the Systems Engineering Life Cycle

mike Haas
mike Haas
May 4 · 5 min read

Military Drones and the Systems Engineering Life Cycle

Lockheed D-21B at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

Introduction

Drones have been employed in military combat since as early as 1850 when simplistic air balloons loaded with explosives were used to attack Venice. Drones used for combat that we think of today were experimented with in the 1930s. One example of which later became the Curtiss N2C-2 Drone in 1937, (Vyas, 2020). Today, military forces around the world rely heavily on drones to complete military missions that were once accomplished by manned aircraft.

Why use Drones at all?

If one would list the pros and cons of using drones over traditionally manned aircraft, what would they be? At least to supplement an existing or future force comprised of manned aircraft, the benefits of their use might outweigh the negatives. Let’s list the obvious: an airborne drone does not have a pilot that is in the direct line of air combat, whereas a manned aircraft does. A drone does not require all of the support systems that a manned aircraft does to keep the pilot alive and well. Among these support systems include: G-suits, oxygen systems, ejections seats, pressure systems, the human-machine interface, and safety features that are IN the aircraft itself. What about cons? A drone aircraft requires data links and ground control systems that allow for seamless control of the drone. Unless the drone is fully autonomous, it also requires drone pilot systems that are integrated with the ground control station. Among these are systems that mimic the situational awareness that a pilot will have by just looking outside of the cockpit. A final thought on the use of drones that encompasses the scope of this article is to look at the systems life cycle for a drone. From the perspective of time and cost, is the drone’s system lifecycle better than a manned military aircraft?

Augustine’s Law — Costs of US Combat Aircraft from 1900 to 2020

Military Aircraft Systems Life Cycle

The field of Systems Engineering traces its origins back to Bell Labs back in the early 1900s with the first major applications of systems engineering utilized during World War II (INCOSE). As the years have progressed, military aircraft, their systems, and their “systems of systems” have become increasingly more complex. This complexity has translated to increased time and cost to field, let alone maintain. Systems engineering focuses on the entire life cycle of a system which is broken out (in the most generic way) into exploratory, concept, development, production, utilization and support, and retirement stages (Forsberg, Mooz, and Cotterman 2005). When we observe how military aircraft systems have evolved, the life cycles have gotten to the point where they are almost prohibitively long, and equally as costly. One may ask: could a drone be fielded in a shorter period of time, and/or cost less?

Multiple Medium-Sized Drones?

Let us hypothesize after knowing the pros and cons of a drone aircraft in place of a manned one, that a drone aircraft would take an equal period of time and cost to field. All other variables in this hypothesis are the same regarding performance and weapons requirements for either aircraft. Now let’s look at some key differences: Drones do not need to have any supporting systems on the aircraft to keep a pilot alive, nor do they need a cockpit at all. This space could be replaced with extra systems or weapons, and the development and all associated costs for these systems would be saved. However, these costs may be outweighed by the ground station and datalink systems that must be integrated with a drone system. Seems like we’re at about even with system life cycle costs and time, with maybe less weight required for a drone aircraft.

USAF Military Drone in Combat, Hruska, J. (2018), ExtremeTech

What if more than one drone could be used to accomplish the same mission as one manned aircraft? Each aircraft would have 1/3 of the weapon systems, no on-board Human machine interface systems, and the airframe design could be optimized for the one or two weapon systems that it had on board. Risk wise, in battle, if one drone went down, the pilots life would be saved and the investment to purchase that aircraft would be split by 3 as apposed to a manned aircraft with all required capabilities. Now let us assume all development costs are the same but split by 3 for the drone. In addition, the system life cycle time is split by 3. Is this acceptable?

For the most recent US manned fighter to be fielded was the Joint Strike Fighter program, for which, the system life cycle time was almost 20 years until the jet was fielded (https://view.ceros.com/lockheed-martin/the-f35-history-timeline/p/13). That is, for it to go from concept, to development, to production. The problem with any new military aircraft is that the requirements for that aircraft created to address a threat, which can change decades into the future (Insinna, 2019). So assuming the development time is exactly 1/3 in our above drone example, we have two major positives: 1. we are taking the highly trained pilot out of direct harm, and 2. the threat that the aircraft was originally designed to combat hasn’t changed nearly as much in several years as it has in decades.

The bottom line is: medium sized drones could be the way to go for militaries in the future. With very focused capabilities they could be developed in the relative short periods of time as mentioned above, they would take the pilot out of direct harm, and could be fielded with substantially shorter system life cycles to meet changing future threats.

Sources:

(1) United States Air Force. (2015). Lockheed D-21B at the National Museum of the United States Air Force [Photograph]. National Museum of the United States Air Force. https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/195778/lockheed-d-21b/

(2) Vyas, K. (2020, Jun 29) A brief history of drones: The remote controlled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Interesting Engineering.

https://interestingengineering.com/a-brief-history-of-drones-the-remote-controlled-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-uavs#:~:text=Some%20of%20the%20earliest%20military%20drones%20appeared%20in%20the%20mid%2D1850s&text=The%20concept%20of%20drones%20may,incendiary%20balloons%20over%20the%20city.

(3) Buede, D. (2000). History of Systems Engineering. INCOSE. https://www.incose.org/about-systems-engineering/history-of-systems-engineering

(4) Fairley, D., Forsberg, K., & Madachy, R. (2020, Oct 30). System life cycle process models: Vee. SEBoK. https://www.sebokwiki.org/wiki/System_Life_Cycle_Process_Models:_Vee

(5) Aviation. (n.d.). Why does it take so long to develop modern military jets? https://aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/38837/why-does-it-take-so-long-to-develop-modern-military-jets

(6) History of the F-35, https://view.ceros.com/lockheed-martin/the-f35-history-timeline/p/2

(7) Insinnia, V. (2019, Sep 16). The US Air Force’s radical plan for a future fighter could field a jet in 5 years. DefenseNews. https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/2019/09/16/the-us-air-forces-radical-plan-for-a-future-fighter-could-field-a-jet-in-5-years/

(8) Hruska, J. (2018). [USAF Military Drone] [Photograph] ExtremeTech.

https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/265216-think-one-military-drone-bad-drone-swarms-terrifyingly-difficult-stop THE LAST PIC

The Systems Engineering Scholar

Thinking about Systems Engineering in light of reality

The Systems Engineering Scholar

As a requirement for the UMBC SYST 660 Systems Engineering Principles class, I ask the student to write 3 short articles that will take a current news item and relate it to the Systems Engineering profession, perspective, or process. The results are published in this magazine.

mike Haas

Written by

mike Haas

The Systems Engineering Scholar

As a requirement for the UMBC SYST 660 Systems Engineering Principles class, I ask the student to write 3 short articles that will take a current news item and relate it to the Systems Engineering profession, perspective, or process. The results are published in this magazine.

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