Air Force to advance small UAVs and systems

The Air Force is preparing a new research and evaluation program aimed at improving small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology and moving new systems into production quickly.

In a presolicitation notice published in late December, the Air Force said it anticipates making four to six contract awards for the Small UAS Research and Evaluation (SURE) program, which will have a funding ceiling of $49.999 million. An unmanned aerial system (UAS) includes ground control and other related systems, in addition to the UAVs, and the SURE program will have a broad mandate to look at improving every element of these systems.

Among other things, the Air Force says it wants SURE to:

  • Develop concepts to address UAS needs and deficiencies.
  • Perform research for a concept’s maturation and risk reduction.
  • Establish readily available technology sources for research and evaluation.
  • Provide fast task-order procurement of studies, research and development, component fabrication, facility support, test plans and other key aspects of small UAS development.

Lindsay Voss, a research analyst at Frost and Sullivan, said the Air Force is starting to pay more attention to smaller UAVs. Many are small enough to be carried in a soldier’s backpack and simple enough to be flown with minimal training with what is essentially a sophisticated equivalent of a model airplane controller. Larger UAVs, such as the Predator, have more extensive surveillance and combat capabilities but also require more elaborate launch and control systems and have to be flown remotely by trained pilots.

Small UAVs are being used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan to scout enemy positions, identify targets for air strikes or artillery, and patrol defensive perimeters. “A big driver is the fact that they’re cheap and fairly effective in their ability to provide reasonably good surveillance,” Voss said. “The technology is all the time progressing and will continue to get better.”

At the same time, there’s substantial room for improvement in things like the quality of the video sent from a UAV, which is affected by the fact that these small vehicles are easily buffeted by the wind, Voss said. “It can be almost like watching video taken on a roller coaster.”

The service with the most experience deploying small UAVs is the Army, not the Air Force, given the Army’s extensive use of the 4-pound Raven B, Voss said.

But the Air Force organized the Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle (BATMAV) program and selected the 1-pound Wasp III as its UAV of choice in December 2006. Both the Wasp and the Raven are from AeroVironment.

The BATMAV contract was initially valued at $45 million, and the Marine Corps recently used the contract vehicle to place a $19.3 million order. The Marines plan to use the Wasps at the platoon level, in addition to the Ravens it has deployed to companies and battalions. Voss said she would expect the SURE contract to attract bids from a number of relatively small, specialized aerospace companies including AeroVironment, Cyber Defense Systems and Aurora Flight Sciences.

AeroVironment spokesman Steven Gitlin wouldn’t comment on his company’s plans regarding the SURE program. But he added that it already has a track record of advancing the state of the art, particularly by making UAVs more compact and capable.

“A soldier has to carry bullets, armor, water and food, so if we can make these things smaller, there’s less that gets displaced from that backpack,” he said. On the other hand, “if we want the individual soldier to have this capability, it has to be small enough to be carried around with them, so there are going to be some tradeoffs by definition.”

In other words, a 1-pound Wasp can’t possibly carry the same image stabilization systems as a 200-pound Shadow, a larger UAV used by the Army and Marines.

“That said, imagery is one of the things we’re continuing to improve,” Gitlin said. Another area for further development is adding offensive capabilities to surveillance, which has so far been the main use of small UAVs, he said.

AeroVironment is already developing Switchblade, a tubelaunched, battery-powered UAV that would carry an explosive charge, so that when it finds its target — an insurgent planting an improvised explosive device, for example — it can be armed to explode on impact as a guided munition. 

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