Small unmanned systems play outsized role in tactical operations

Advances for UAS programs spawn new ISR missions

Unmanned aerial systems are so ingrained in military strategy that no one thinks twice when a Hellfire-equipped Reaper strikes a pickup truck on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. In contrast, the recent news that Japan used a micro air vehicle to collect imagery and radiation data at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility was unqiue.

Even more interesting is that the unmanned aerial vehicle was Honeywell’s T-Hawk, which is one of a handful of spin-out technologies that survived the cut of the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program and is flying missions in Afghanistan. At press time, Honeywell reported that three of its employees had flown five missions with the T-Hawk at Fukushima, capturing what it said was hours of video and dozens of photographs with a fleet of four T-Hawks.


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The T-Hawk is a ducted-fan vertical takeoff and landing air vehicle that was originally developed as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program. At 14 inches round and weighing 17 pounds, the micro air vehicle can fly 40-minute missions, and users can control them from as far as six miles away. In Iraq, they're being used for route clearance, infantry assault and explosive ordnance disposal missions, and they have flown 17,000 hours, according to Honeywell.

Presumably, Tokyo Electric Power won’t be returning the T-Hawks to Honeywell upon completion of the mission. However, the versatility of small unmanned aerial systems (UASes) are on display every day in war zones, on national borders and in times of crisis. The following summaries examine other, recent notable developments in small UAS programs for the military services.

New role for vertical UAS

The T-Hawk is the last UAV standing of the four systems developed during FCS, but that doesn't mean all the UASes developed have been dismantled. The Northrop Grumman-built Fire Scout vertical-takeoff-and-land UAS might no longer play a role in Army operations, but the Navy has shown its support for the platform through two ship-based deployments. In April, the Navy said the UAS would fly ground missions for Central Command, a first for the ISR aircraft.

“It’s very unique for an aircraft to deploy directly from Pax River,” said Navy Capt. Tim Dunigan, PMA-266 program manager. PMA-266 is the Navy and Marine Corps' Multi-Mission Tactical UAS program office. “The activity conducted by our test team at Webster Field was done exceptionally well,” he said, speaking of the airfield about a dozen miles from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. “We were able to meet tight schedule timelines so we could support the warfighter as soon as possible.”

The mission with Central Command fulfills an urgent operational need from the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force, led by Lt. Gen. John Koziol.

A combined team of military, civilian and contractor personnel modified and tested three naval-configured Fire Scout systems for land operations in environments that would be similar to the Central Command's area of responsibility, including Afghanistan. The three UAVs, along with two ground control stations and other associated hardware, left Naval Air Station Patuxent River on Air Force cargo planes in April.

The Fire Scout deployment is planned for one year, and the UAV is expected to provide hundreds of hours of full-motion video in theater to support Army and coalition forces. The job of flying and maintaining the aircraft will transfer from Navy to contractor personnel.

Sense and avoid

A variety of companies have been working for the past several years on giving unmanned aircraft the ability to sense the presence of other aircraft and automatically avoid them, a capability that's necessary before unmanned aircraft would ever be allowed to fly in civilian airspace. Recently, there have been some important developments in sense-and-avoid systems for small UAVs.

Earlier this year, for example, AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said it had successfully flown a small sense and avoid system on a Shadow 200 UAV that allowed it to share the same airspace with a nearby, manned aircraft.

“This was the first successful demonstration of technology that will enable an airborne sense-and-avoid system on Army platforms,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Hamilton, Army ground maneuver product manager.

The flight was conducted by AAI and system developer Defense Research Associates of Dayton, Ohio, under contract from the Army. The manned aircraft that shadowed the UAV was provided by the Army. During the two-hour flight test, the manned aircraft flew within 500 feet of the UAV, from above and below.

The Army's goal for the sense-and-avoid system is to increase the opportunities for training UAV pilots in the United States. Because of airspace restrictions set by the Federal Aviation Administration, most UAS flight time is logged overseas during military operations.

The effort to miniaturize the existing electro-optical sense-and-avoid system has been supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defense Office of Technology Transition, Air Force Aeronautical Systems Center, Air Force Research Laboratory and Army Shadow Program Office, in addition to AAI and DRA.

Small tactical UAS

In summer 2010, the Navy awarded one of its key intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance contracts to Insitu to develop the Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS). The first phase of the program’s engineering and manufacturing development was just completed with the first operational assessment of the platform, the Integrator unmanned aircraft. Six Integrators are part of the flight test program.

The mission of STUAS is to provide persistent maritime and land-based tactical ISR, and in the operational assessment, the aircraft flew mission scenarios designed to assess operational suitability of the Integrator UAS.

“Completing the operational assessment demonstrates a level of system maturity. We know how Integrator will likely perform in the field,” said Bill Clark, vice president of programs and STUAS program manager at Insitu. “Now we can optimize our STUAS design as we finish integrating new technologies and requirements into the system.” Because of the way the STUAS contract is configured, a favorable operational assessment could mean delivery of a number of Integrator systems to the Marine Corps before the year's end.

Insitu was bought by Boeing in 2008, after a number of years working together on the Navy’s ScanEagle UAV program. Under STUAS, the Navy is phasing out the contractor-owned ScanEagle and is transitioning to a military program of record with the integrator.

On the tiniest edge of the small UAS

Earlier this year, AeroVironment, known for its Raven unmanned system, said it had achieved controlled precision hovering and fast-forward flight of a flapping wing aircraft that flies like a hummingbird in that it uses only the flapping wings for propulsion and control, and it carries its own energy source.

The milestone was part of a contract awarded by DARPA to design and build a flying hummingbird-like aircraft under the Nano Air Vehicle program. Such a flying platform might seem too fragile to ever find itself in a war zone, but the tiny Nano Hummingbird, as it is named by AeroVironment, is at the same place in its development that the T-Hawk was when it was a DARPA program in the late 1990s.

In remote control testing, the Nano Hummingbird flew in and out of doorways, moved in all directions, demonstrated a continuous hover endurance of 8 minutes, had hover stability in 5 mph cross winds, and did so while carrying a video camera payload.

A one-of-a-kind, handmade aircraft, the Hummingbird has a wingspan of 6.5 inches and a total flying weight of 19 grams, which is less than the weight of a AA battery. The aircraft can be fitted with a removable body fairing, which is shaped to have the appearance of a real hummingbird, though the aircraft is larger and heavier than an average hummingbird, according to the ornithologists at AeroVironment.

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