Small, tactical systems fill aerial coverage gap

Defense Department sends more small unmanned aircraft to war zone

The dramatic evolution of large, unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft has arguably been the game changer of the past decade.

Tweaked iterations of the strategic Global Hawk, Predator and others their ilk boast ever more impressive camera resolutions, sensor arrays and loiter times. Some Predators and Lockheed Martin’s Desert Hawk III even surveil base perimeters, and Predator’s beefy offspring Gray Eagle can loose Hellfires if so tasked.


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Increasingly, the craft work in swarms; that is, interoperate with other manned and unmanned (MUM) assets, and teaming concepts (MuM-T) gain converts daily. Approximately 1,400 drones are in use, compared with about 200 in 2006.

But the coverage blanket has holes.

The high-flying unmanned vehicles and smaller reconnaissance aircraft such as Shadow and Scan Eagle aren’t omnipotent. Unable to easily operate down at tactical battlefield levels, they see forests but not the trees.

Increasingly, downsized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are helping fill that gap. More Small Tactical UAVs (hand and rail-launched) are being brought to theater, Defense Systems reported in June. These principally include the Army’s proven Raven and Puma. As of July, an additional 180 Raven systems were to be surged to the current inventory of several thousand, and the dozen or so Pumas increased to 84.

Can sufficient small UAVs, with their local missions, redefine “wide-area” surveillance and dovetail with other drones to merge tactical and strategic battlefield coverage?

Ranges might not exceed more than 15 miles, with altitudes seldom beyond 15,000 feet and just a few hours’ endurance. But swarming expands collective potentialities, say Army officials; multiple, disparate light UAVs connect through common mini-ground stations and architecture.

Officials say the Army Aircraft Systems (AAS) Universal Ground Control Station (UGCS) can coordinate flight and payloads of  these and other classes “from a single ground control element through a common data link.” The interoperability gear resides in a five-ton truck or high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle where it receives and disseminates battlefield video and situational awareness data through operator consoles.

Maj. Jeffrey Poquette, Army assistant product manager for small UAS, said melding systems had become key in the surge.      

“As for integrating them into the full strategic ISR plan – I have seen it myself coming back from a recent deployment," he said. "There are brigade commanders who are quite intuitive and creative, and although the system wasn’t designed to be a gap filler, they’ve learned to do it very effectively -- that, particularly in [Operation New Dawn] where there’s a significant drawdown occurring and you see a lot  of strategic asserts being pulled out of theatre. Commanders are using their own [UAV] fleets which are organic to their unit and really building it into an organized ISR plan. That is to say, devising scheduled times for flying assets such as Raven. This is a unique and different way to use the device; so while not the primary mission, it can be done."

In the case he’d seen in Northwestern Iraq, Poquette said, such commander-driven integration presaged a big reduction in indirect fire attacks against the unit’s Forward Operating Bases. “Even with the pullback in the strategic assets, by using integrated tactical UAVs [the brigade commander] was able to reduce the [enemy] assaults.”

Each brigade has 15 systems that each have three Ravens – a total of 45 air vehicles, all pushed down to the company level. In all, commanders “build a solid, continuous plan utilizing those asserts.” (The Puma is only deployed in Afghanistan, with only about 100 in theatre flying route-clearing patrols.)

Poquette said the surge depends not on the acquisition process but “on actually borrowing from units that do not deploy or are not deploying right now.” This work-around speeds the Raven surge. Of course, this entails training for additional operators. Poquette expects 3,900 Ravens to be surged along with another 130 Pumas.

Complex coordination

Helping finesse such a useful but complex coordination is Ray Buettner, associate professor of information sciences and director of field experimentation at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). He works with the Navy Special Warfare office; projects are largely funded by the Special Operations Command. The Navy secretary has charged Buettner to show the services how to become innovative and adaptive as small UAV technology changes. The goal is to extract maximum utility from the small UAVs by making them multipurpose.

“Let’s get away from thinking about putting a new bird up for every capability we want,” Buettner said, and instead “explore putting packages together that can be flown on a variety of UAVs. The platforms are part of a set of capabilities that can be distributed among several small UAVs: cameras, EW, weapons.”

Although current missions vary considerably, “It’s still mostly ‘remote eyeballs’ — visual surveillance where an operator is looking at video, can see over that hill and tell if someone’s hiding there, then report that back. At that level [the small UAVs] are primarily ‘airborne scouts.’ ” 

Small UAVs also are gaining battlefield proficiency in some radio frequency surveillance and enhanced tracking abilities. Most fieldable systems aren’t highly networked, Buettner said, though the latest digital Raven and Puma “will be net-competent for better imagery capture and shared capability.”

That can mean flying in small groups or pairs where one craft carries a camera package, another a signals intelligence piece, and a third something else.

The problem with small UAVs such as the predominant Raven is their lack of sophisticated electro-optic turret balls and cameras (which strategic and slightly larger platforms such as Shadow or Scan Eagle have). But smaller, lighter, cheaper systems will be enhanced, including push-to-talk radio control capabilities, Buettner said.

The Ravens and their diminutive kin can also serve in artillery fire observer roles, as relay nodes or to monitor urban populations drawing on cellular or wi-fi networks. Over Buettner’s near horizon are additional counter-sniper and counter-IED applications. “One-shot lethal” UAVs have been successfully employed against improvised explosive device emplacers and, against snipers, an electronically-fired .223 rifle barrel, he said. Applied to Ravens and Pumas, these systems turn every platform into a shooter. For an enemy, he said, “the ability to lay on a rooftop looking down for a good ambush is suddenly threatened by the mere presence of any UAV in the area.” Buettner added that such simple systems are agnostic as to aircraft type.

Another fast-maturing development in progress from Buettner, his NPS colleagues and the University of Alabama is parafoil delivery of various payload package released by the rail-launched, TV-equipped Arcturus T-20 STUAV with “Snowflake Pod.” It’s “UAVs dropping UAVs,” said Buettner. “Some are just jamming packages, others might entail a high-altitude drop with guided parafoils…all the way down to network nodes connecting the swarm.” 

Buettner noted that swarming, much-discussed today, is often thought of as multiples of the same craft, tasked equally. But he considers it as the coordination of networks around small UAVs — “essentially, disparate vehicles and disparate platforms collaborating” while  performing disparate tasks.

“We want to keep a lot of small, leaner and meaner platforms, and use the medium and larger platforms to integrate the capabilities of the smalls,” he said. “We fly the Raven right now in our experiments routinely with Navy Special Warfare and the firms doing development on Raven. You can change out the primary payload; we can have three Ravens whose primary missions are very different. And it’s all field-changeable; the guys can swap parts like nosecones. They can turn a primarily RF detector into a high-resolution camera bird.”

Interoperability advancements

Meanwhile, the Army is working along parallel lines. MUM and MUM-T linkages got a major boost with Army Aviation’s 2011 Manned Unmanned Systems Integration Capability (MUSIC) exercise. Reckoned to be a template for near-term operations, the month-long exercise proved interoperability tools’ efficacy.

Army Aviation official Sophia Bledsoe said of MUSIC, “The Army’s Program Executive Office [PEO] Aviation proved that advancements in interoperability and systems integration, across the manned and unmanned platforms, worked as anticipated. These accomplishments pave the way for [MUM-T] fielding initiatives in fiscal 2012 and beyond.”

Key to interoperability is the pairing of the Universal Ground Control Station with the One Station Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT). “The UGCS allowed a single operator to hand off control to various types of manned and unmanned aircraft systems. The OSRVT allowed for bi-directional control between the larger platforms,” said Bledsoe.

This means a OSRVT-equipped soldier could directly control UAS payloads versus making radio requests for a UAS operator to point payloads at a desired target, she said.

The interplay also allowed aggregation of video images captured from the small unmanned systems, and from the manned Apache and Kiowa. Bledsoe said it was all about improving battlefield management by “increasing operators’ situational awareness and sharing real time, actionable data.”

PEO Army Aviation plans based on the month-long exercise include multiple sensor feeds teamed with a lethal weapons platform for increased effectiveness, survivability and discretion by users. Manned and unmanned aircraft will be linked to achieve a common objective. 

Systems-to-systems interoperability means cost savings and increased efficiency, Bledsoe pointed out, “helping mitigate the ever-increasing threat to our operational forces due to advancements in enemy technology.” Shifting from a system-level perspective to a capabilities perspective is intended to support that effort.

Besides the intensive work of the NPS and Army Aviation, Raven and Puma maker AeroVironment is reportedly developing hybrid fuel cells to improve the vehicles’ flight times.

Buettner said he expects larger systems will persist, but many in the Army and Navy understand that “the power of small UAV surging is not to lock in early on one platform in an attempt to turn in it into some kind of do-it-all program, but rather to work across this rapidly changing domain and be flexible.”

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