Technological advances could enable unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to deliver radically improved situational awareness within five years, according to the top executive at unmanned aircraft developer General Atomics.

No doubt, drones have their ups and downs. They are killing bad people, and some good people, too, in Afghanistan. A half dozen or so are patrolling the U.S. northern and southern borders, although two recently lost their software brains up in Canada. And law enforcement is looking at them for crime prevention after British police announced upcoming experimental patrols.

Now drones are being seen as the next situational awareness tool.

“We’re probably no more than one-fifth along the way to developing really remarkable situational awareness,” stated the chairman and CEO of the privately owned UAS pioneer. “We’re about one-fifth of the way of what we can actually achieve within the next five years.” He said communications links, or “bandwidth down,” are the biggest limitation to providing wide-area situational awareness at very high resolution. Advances in onboard processing and the integration of data feeds from multiple platforms also will be crucial. “You have the integration from cached information, which will provide extremely accurate, high granularity in terms of target location,” the CEO told Aviation Week in an interview at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ main assembly complex near San Diego. Another challenge is preventing adversaries from hacking into communications networks. Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is testing a 1.8-gigapixel sensor that can downlink as many video streams as 65 General Atomics Predators and allow a single platform to track people and vehicles across an area the size of a city.