Army turns to aerial sensors for battlefield precision

Overarching program provides layered approach to airborne intelligence gathering

Col. Robert Carpenter is project manager of the Army’s Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) Program. Over the years, the ACS program has considered a variety of platforms, including transport-type aircraft, business jets and unmanned aerial systems (UASs). As the Defense Department shifts priorities to rapid collection and dissemination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information through programs such as the Air Force’s Project Liberty and the Army’s Task Force ODIN (Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize), the first phase of the ACS program is now based on a manned, twin-engine turboprop, such as the Beechcraft King Air.

Carpenter spoke recently with Defense Systems contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about the program’s mission and near-term objectives.

DS: ACS is now an umbrella program that encompasses a number of elements. What can you tell us about its current structure?

Carpenter: ACS is no longer a thing or a piece of hardware where you can kick the tires. It is more of a total, overarching project that has multiple elements within it. We now look at it as a layered approach to airborne ISR with four elements: the Enhanced Medium Altitude, Reconnaissance and Surveillance system (EMARSS); a vertical takeoff and landing UAS; the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), which is an airship; and a fourth one that is to be determined but is similar to the original requirement for ACS, which is something like a long-endurance, fixed-wing manned platform.

DS: EMARSS is your first priority. How will it differ from Task Force ODIN, which you refer to as the MARSS (Medium Altitude, Reconnaissance and Surveillance) aircraft?

Carpenter: We’re going to take what we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan and build our Army program of record out of what was ACS. EMARSS is the next-generation ODIN quick reaction MARSS aircraft. With EMARSS we’re taking what we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan and will combine it with the next generation of technology in a medium-altitude turboprop.

DS: What lessons learned will be applied to EMARSS?

Carpenter: Two things [are] expectation management and avoiding the good idea fairies.

With expectation management … we see a lot of mom-and-pop sensor shops and one-off sensors. But when you attach them to an aircraft that has to takeoff and land, fly at altitude in low temperatures, and sit on a runway at high temperatures, the sensor is affected by those conditions. The key is reliability, availability and maintainability of those payloads so that we get the longest meantime between failure or system abort.

The good idea fairies fall into a similar category. There, you’ve got people who want to build a radar or a sensor that can do amazing things. They say it will fit, but it becomes a power hog, or it is, once again, one of these mom-and-pop systems. So the key to this program — and one of the tenets we want to live by — is let’s take the risk in integration, not put the risk on the payloads. So we want mature payloads that have a very high technology readiness level.

DS: Are you finding payloads with sufficiently high technology readiness levels?

Carpenter: There are some things in development. Right now, I fly a particular [electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) ball], but there’s already one coming out of production that has better capability. Everyone is also talking about wanting high definition. I can get you a great high-definition picture for the operator on board the aircraft, but the issue with high def is the bandwidth it takes to move that picture off that aircraft to the guy on the ground. So a lot of times we’ve got to compress the image or take it down to a standard definition, which causes the loss of some resolution.

We’re working with the data link community to figure out all the new different work that’s going on in compression algorithms. A lot of it is coming out of the commercial market, and as we move into high definition, we’ll try to adapt a lot of that into these aircraft.

But what you can still do in the meantime is record that information and produce it when you land. For example, you do weapons release on a target and the controversy comes up — was that a wedding party or was that a bunch of Taliban guys? Well, guess what? Now that I have a high-definition film of it, I can prove that it was Taliban fighters.

DS: What are some of the other key enablers for EMARSS?

Carpenter: We’re looking for beyond-line-of-sight communications, which is what we do now on the MARSS program in Afghanistan. We’re also looking for a company that can develop an elegant design that gives us some peek into the future for growth as payloads change. Finally it will come down to predictability. In addition, the Army will have a certain acquisition objective for this and will want to build so many per year over the [Program Objective Memorandum] and beyond the POM period.

DS: How many EMARSS aircraft are we talking about?

Carpenter: Anywhere from 30 to 40 aircraft. And when I say over time, it is really going to be based on the budget. Once you start building these aircraft, you can turn them out rather quickly.

DS: What sort of growth do you envision for EMARSS over time?

Carpenter: For EO/IR full-motion video, we want to see longer range. We want higher definition, and then we want to be able to move that information off the aircraft. So it’s not just the EO/IR ball, it’s also the processing and the datalink. So there’s a lot of work going on in the EO/IR ball as we improve our ability to see at night, at longer ranges and with higher resolutions. But I look at it as a PM. I can kludge things together and make it work. But I think the art is doing total system engineering so you understand the baseline architecture of the aircraft.

Here’s what I mean: If I’m drawing 900 watts of power now and the next EO/IR ball draws 1,300 watts of power, I know what the impact of that will be on the total system, and I can accommodate it or I can’t accommodate it. I have to tell my user: "Can’t put what’s on that aircraft on this aircraft because I just don’t have the power. If you want it, I have to take something off." So it’s like balancing your checkbook, but it’s not based on dollars. In this case, it’s based on size, weight, power and cooling. And for anybody who has looked at the history of ACS, that has been where the problems were. We wanted to put 10 pounds of stuff in a five-pound sack.

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