top of page
Line Concept Level 3 page 2.PNG

Unmanned Aerial Systems and the 5th Generation Air Force - Part II - William Gill

The potential future applications of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) capabilities in support of everyday military operations are widely acknowledged. Over two parts, SGT William Gill analyses UAS capability through the lens of the force-in-being, objective force and future force, as well as opportunities for technological advancement. This is the second instalment in that series. Part one can be found here.

The Future Force

Human-out-of-the-loop (HOL) autonomy is expected to grow significantly over the coming decades and could include the full automation of an airbase such that human involvement is minimal. By utilising autonomous vehicles to complete tasks that have traditionally been conducted by human operators, Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel can be reassigned to more specific, useful roles. Peter Layton explains this concept succinctly in his recent paper Surfing the Digital Wave.

Autonomous vehicles could include forklifts, aircraft tow motors, general maintenance vehicles, air operations vehicles and ancillary motored ground support equipment. Fuel trucks, cargo loaders and power units could also be autonomous, positioning themselves as appropriate and then connecting themselves to the aircraft. People could then inspect the setup either at the flight line, or through some remote means, and authorise fuel delivery, cargo loading or power on, respectively. Weapons could also be transported and loaded by autonomous systems.

Extrapolating this illustration to include airbase security; UAS could be used to detect anomalies during a base perimeter patrol. The UAS could cue an Automatic Guided Vehicle (AGV) to respond and interrogate the detected anomaly. Through developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), the above scenario demonstrates the potential of fully autonomous systems. This concept is not limited to base security; potential exists across the whole airbase to incorporate such technology to streamline processes and create efficiencies.

While it may seem far-fetched, this concept has already been partially tested by the Australian Army’s Robotic and Autonomous System Implementation Coordination Office (RICO) in collaboration with BAE Systems in the development of the Autonomous M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier. Gabby Costigan, the CEO of BAE Systems Australia, highlighted that the M113 project demonstrates a `commitment to leading the development of new technologies and collaborating across industry and academia to advance autonomous capabilities.’

Two autonomous Australian Army M113 AS4 armoured vehicles conducted fire and manoeuvre demonstrations alongside crewed vehicles, UAS and ground robots to Department of Defence senior leadership at the Majura Training Area, ACT, on Thursday 31 October 2019. The demonstration showcased the potential for robotic and autonomous systems to enhance Army’s capabilities on operations. (Source: Defence Images)

The Future of UAS

Awareness and education are vital to promoting the value of UAS within the Royal Australian Air Force. Recent trial activity conducted by Air Force 3 Security Force (3 SECFOR) involving UAS operations within RAAF air bases highlighted a common lack of knowledge and understanding. Base Command Posts, Air Traffic Control and Base Security Officers each required in-depth education from the project team upon arrival to alleviate security and safety concerns. There was a common perception among personnel that the UAS was a toy, not a tool that could enhance capability outputs for various tasks. In order to gain UAS operating permission, a significant amount of time was spent educating base staff on how safety and governance requirements were being fulfilled. Implementation of standardised base operating procedures would go a long way to increasing understanding on a broader scale, allowing for more efficient and widespread utilisation. Standardised processes across all defence bases would further streamline approval processes and reduce the need for surplus education. To assist in this process, the Air Force could again leverage from the Army's success in implementing a drone literacy program. In 2018, the Army invested in 350 UAS, which enabled Army personnel a hands-on approach to UAS education. As explained by Colonel Gabby Follett, Commanding Officer of 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB), ‘drone literacy is every soldier and commander understanding what a drone can do for them. What the possibilities are, how to pick the right drone for the mission.’

The 3SECFOR trial identified the significant potential of UAS within a 5th generation Air Force. It is imperative, however, that a positive narrative is provided by leadership to support the implementation of UAS capability. This includes promoting UAS as a capable tool with many diverse applications across all Air Force. There are numerous opportunities across the workforce to streamline everyday tasks, improve surveillance and accuracy, minimise risk exposure and realise time and cost efficiencies. Such an approach supports the Air Force Strategy 2017-2027 which states that Air Force must develop a 5th generation workforce that can quickly and effectively adapt to rapid technological and operational change and exploit the opportunities presented by Australia’s changing workforce demographics.’


Introducing new and innovative, technologically advanced methods for completing everyday tasks, while challenging traditional methodologies is crucial to driving innovation in any workforce. A 5th Generation Air Force requires adept and agile thinkers to generate innovation in its approach to applying new and evolving technologies. Through an analysis of UAS capability across the Force-in-Being, Objective Force and Future Force, this two-part series aims to encourage conversation surrounding the potential of UAS capability and emerging technology in the 5th Generation Air Force.

Recent Technology advancements have proven invaluable across all spectrums of UAS capability, ground vehicles, artificial intelligence, big data, and analysis. Technology not only improves efficiencies and outputs; it can reduce human error and minimise risk in the workplace. Impressive technological innovation already occurs across Air Force, Army and Navy; however, additional cross-pollination would prove invaluable. Collaboration in trials, research and outcomes across the joint force will generate greater cost efficiencies and streamline engagement with Australian industry. The creation of a joint centre for excellence would further strengthen this collaboration and provide a channel for clear communication and knowledge. The implementation of these recommendations ensure that research and lessons learnt are shared and leveraged for continuous improvement within the ADF as a whole. Indeed, tri-service collaboration is imperative for the 5th Generation Air Force.

Sergeant William Gill is an Airfield Defence Guard in the Royal Australian Air Force. He has extensive and diverse operational experience including service on Operations FIJI ASSIST, SLIPPER and MAZURKA. Sergeant Gill is passionate about Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, and how they can deliver enhanced security effects to national support bases and expeditionary security forces. In 2020, Sergeant Gill received a Conspicuous Service Cross for his dedicated work in Small Unmanned Aerial Systems. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


bottom of page