COMMENTARY

Smaller, lighter designs expand UAS sensor capabilities

Advances in aircraft, payload designs extend engagement range for operators

A key element of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ plan to enhance military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities is bringing high performance, compact and adaptable surveillance systems to the battlefield. In the sensor world, that is translating into a number of developments designed to help warfighters.

One example is the integration of capabilities of larger 20-inch or 15-inch turrets, such as laser designation, into much smaller stabilized turrets. These “small ball” systems significantly augment the mission capabilities of manned and unmanned aircraft because of their relatively low weight and small size. Minimizing the weight of one sensor makes it possible to install additional capabilities, such as synthetic aperture radar or munitions, or add fuel to increase platform endurance. The adaptability of those systems also permits a broader selection of payloads to meet numerous mission profiles.
 
We’ve already seen the benefits of that flexibility. For instance, warfighters have received better and more capabilities when payloads maximize overall system packaging density because of the ability to configure and miniaturize sensors. As an example, we’ve incorporated capabilities such as laser designation into our small, lightweight Cobalt 190 and Talon-LD products. The laser designator gives airborne platforms the ability to not only identify a target but also designate and engage the target with a laser-guided munition, such as Hellfire. We see a growing requirement for a broader laser designation capability across the battlefield, making every sensor a shooter. Not surprisingly, we’re making this technology a major thrust of our product development efforts.
 
Another important sensing capability that small multisensor systems can provide is the ability to help detect improvised explosive devices. When integrated on unmanned aircraft systems, the UAS can sweep an area or road to search for suspicious individuals or behavior before a convoy passes through. It also could identify disturbed earth or other changes since the last time it surveyed a particular road.
 
The next step is incorporating high-definition cameras into the small ball product realm. High-definition imagery translates to longer range capability. Just like HD TV, an image with more pixels has better picture clarity and more information. That enables target discrimination from longer ranges, enabling operators to cover more of the battlefield and reduce risk to the platform and personnel by extending the engagement stand-off range.
 
In addition to packaging greater payloads into smaller volumes, advances in system design also help to reduce weight and simplify the entire system by integrating the control electronics — typically housed in a separate box — into the turret. Again, by example, our Cobalt 190 and Cobalt 90 products employ only a single connector at the top of the turret. All control signals, sensor outputs and video are transmitted through this single interface. For example, that resulted in reducing the overall system weight of our 9-inch Talon product by approximately 15 percent.

Those and other design changes also have resulted in being able to mechanically stabilize our 3 ½-inch, 1.25-pound Cobalt 90. Most gimbals in that class are not stabilized, or they implement a kind of electronic stabilization that resembles what's available on a commercial product, such as a Sony Handycam. However, that dumbs down the image and reduces range performance. Using advanced designs to engineer mechanical stabilization is a key discriminator in this class.

It also has meant that in that tiny package, we can place three payloads. You don’t need to install one type of camera for daytime operations and swap it out at night with a different camera. For example, both can reside in the system simultaneously, along with a laser pointer. Such a capability is especially valuable for small UASes.
 
The goal is to continue driving technology to be smaller, lighter, more capable and simpler to give users and platform integrators an ever-increasing degree of mission flexibility and simplicity of platform installation.

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