As the use of UAVs amongst military services did not integrate simultaneously, there are multiple Tier designations in common use across the different branches of service. For the purpose of this series, they will be broken down into the three main categorizations of capability recognitions.
In laymen’s terms, Tier I systems are the most basic platforms. They are hand launched platforms utilized by actual "boots on the ground" guys who fly the vehicle themselves to do initial "over the hill", "over the building", or "what’s coming next" assessments. The hit film Act of Valor recently portrayed a Tier I platform resembling a model airplane launched by hand off the rescue boat to provide a real time video surveillance feed of the soldiers’ actions and surroundings. Since not everyone has a great throwing arm, these Tier I systems can also be bungee launched by using a setup resembling a water balloon launcher. Tier I systems have short endurances, with distance range limitations that are confined by that endurance. These systems can generally fly for 45 minutes to an hour, with the longest currently-operational vehicle’s endurance lasting approximately two hours. Tier I systems are usually used as a platoon level asset.
Tier II systems are generally launched from a catapult device but may sometimes even take off from a runway. These systems have medium endurances with flight durations lasting up to a dozen hours and can fly at higher altitudes for longer periods of time. Because of the increased breadth and scope of their reconnaissance capabilities, Tier II systems are company or battalion level assets that could also organically cover the collection needs of multiple platoons. The coordination of collection needs amongst Tier II assets may prove to be a great unifier amongst the different services for tactical operations and strategic planning.
The most complex of the designations is Tier III. Tier III systems are long endurance, theatre level assets where the system can be tasked from different areas of operations in theatre depending upon events and significant incidents. Some of these platforms have flight times exceeding 30 hours, which allows them to cover tens of thousands of square miles during any given mission. These systems can be tasked with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) responsibilities in multiple areas at one time. Tier III vehicles are often weaponized, and these are the types of systems that most often make the front page news.
Not only do different tiers of UAV vehicles themselves offer varying operational capabilities, but so do the payloads that they carry. A payload is defined as the load carried by a vehicle exclusive of what is necessary for is operation, and in the case of UAVs that cargo is primarily surveillance equipment followed by armaments.
Tier I payload capacities for ISR missions are primarily limited to electro-optical and infrared imagery because of the equipment’s light weight. A very detailed picture with high image resolution, especially from great heights, requires a heavier camera. Most of the payloads for Tier I vehicles must weigh under 15 pounds, while some of the newer and more advanced imaging equipment weighs as little as 4 or 5 pounds.
Although small UAVs may look and sound benign, strong technology can be carried by the smallest of drones. Early in 2012 researchers unveiled the Nano Hummingbird prototype, with a bird shaped body and wings. This vehicle has the ability to travel at 11 miles an hour or to hover autonomously, and can be piloted out of sight with outdoor/indoor transition capabilities directed by the live video image stream from the vehicle. For those who have read George Orwell’s 1984, this device may sound eerily reminiscent of surveillance methods watching that society’s citizens.
A Tier II system can carry multiple surveillance payloads at one time, depending upon their weight. This enables operators to switch back and forth between sensors, allowing such versatility as both electro-optical and infrared observation and collection from the same mission and flight path. Tier II platforms could feasibly have the capacity to become weaponized depending on the weapons system, but are generally used for more comprehensive ISR observation.
Tier III payloads have the widest capabilities and can accommodate cargo weighing over a ton. Tier III payloads may include armaments like Hellfire air-to-surface and Stinger air-to-air missiles, which have given these systems the designation of "hunter-killer" systems. These are the platforms that are used for the "drone strikes" that have so often been featured in news stories.
While objections have been raised about UAV collection of audio surveillance, the vehicles themselves generate enough noise that it is unlikely that accurate audio feeds could be obtained from normal surveillance. They are designed primarily to collect imagery, with a smaller capacity for wireless data interception.
All three of Tiers of UAV systems are operated remotely – often from within the U.S. – by individuals who use joysticks to respond to situations they view by feeds on computer screens. The terminology for that individual is a war of words amongst services as being either a pilot or an operator, though in this series the term operator has prevailed as seeming most appropriate for addressing the responsibilities resting on the individual controller.
The Air Force uses pilots and refers to the platforms as RPAs, or remotely piloted air systems, rather than UAVs. RPAs have an assigned rated pilot – an officer – who is responsible for manually controlling the takeoff and landing of the vehicle. Other military branches, however, fly similarly capable systems but have assigned the title of Air Vehicle Operator, or AVO, to the individual responsible for the vehicle. In this scenario, it is often an enlisted soldier who is responsible for monitoring the vehicle’s automatic takeoff and landing operations and general oversight of mission activities.
The ScanEagle system, for instance, is a Tier II platform that can be completely controlled by one operator, from catapult launch to flight path to payload utilization and manipulation. Because of its versatility, ScanEagle is currently the only platform flown by every branch except the Coast Guard. Larger systems with more complicated mission management requirements may have separate operators for the vehicle itself and the payload. In this scenario, one person tells the UAV where to go while another person tells it what to look at while it is going there.
Given this solid basis in understanding UAV Tiers and general technological capabilities, the next installments of this series will focus on UAV issues such as non-kinetic uses in combat operations, humanitarian interventions, commercial applications, environmental uses, and various other aspects of UAV applications.
Whitney Grespin has worked in contingency contracting and international development on four continents. She currently specializes in intelligence sector reform and capacity building.