Army pushes for universal UAS ground control system
Plans include additional systems, encryption and quick-reaction capability
As project manager of the Army's unmanned aircraft systems, Col. Gregory Gonzalez is on the front lines of fulfilling the mission outlined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to step up intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in Afghanistan. He recently spoke with contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about ISR plans for Operation Enduring Freedom, encryption of UAS data feeds and development of a common ground control system.
DS: How are you responding to the need for additional ISR assets in Afghanistan?
Gonzalez: First, we’re getting additional systems into that theater. This summer, we are going to field a quick-reaction capability platoon of extended range multipurpose (ERMP) unmanned aircraft systems. The platoon includes four Sky Warrior aircraft and the necessary soldiers to operate them. We are also in the process of fielding into Afghanistan an additional 400 aircraft that will be operated by contractors. They will be there by October of 2010.
DS: What are the specific platforms included in the 400 aircraft?
Gonzalez: Included will be Hunter aircraft, which primarily operate within the aerial exploitation battalions. It has a certain specific mission I won’t talk about, but it collects at the theater level. We are also potentially fielding two additional Shadow platoons of four aircraft each into Afghanistan over the next fiscal year. Again, contractors will operate them because we need to get these aircraft into theater to support the surge.
DS: We have heard that you’ll be fielding a new digital data link for the Raven unmanned aerial vehicle as part of your ISR surge. What capabilities will that bring?
Gonzalez: The Raven is the smallest aircraft in our inventory and goes down to the squad and platoon levels. We’ve digitized a version of the Raven to make it better in terms of spectrum usage so soldiers can use more of them in a smaller area. The digital data link also allows us to bring a certain level of encryption to the platform.
That is another priority for use: encrypting all of our systems that will be going into the field in the next fiscal year. The Sky Warrior will already be encrypted when it gets fielded into theater, but we’ve had to upgrade our Hunters and Shadows with tactical common data links to allow for encryption. That, in conjunction with other upgrades to the aircraft, allows us to put Type 1 encryption on those systems, which is the most secure.
DS: You recently completed Milestone C on the Sky Warrior platform and will now begin low-rate initial production. Will the ones you’re sending to Afghanistan be produced under LRIP?
Gonzalez: The quick-reaction capability for Afghanistan is actually pre-LRIP systems, or preproduction systems. Milestone C gave us authority to procure two complete systems that we call LRIP 1. Those systems will be put under contract and fielded in fiscal year 2012.
DS: How many air vehicles will be in that Increment 1?
Gonzalez: A complete ERMP system includes 12 aircraft, plus all the ancillary ground control stations and data terminals that are required. So by procuring two systems in LRIP, we’ve basically bought 24 aircraft plus all the equipment. And those will be fielded to the combat aviation brigades in two separate Army divisions.
DS: Bring us up-to-date on your efforts to develop a common ground control system for the Army’s unmanned systems and your related activity establishing a Rapid Integration and Acceptance Center (RIAC) at the Dugway Proving Grounds near Salt Lake City.
Gonzalez: We’re doing final testing and interoperability of the software and some of the hardware components, and if all goes as scheduled, we will be integrating the first Universal Ground Control Station into the Shadow system at the end of 2011. The following year, our plan is to integrate the UGCS with the Hunter system. Right now, we're finalizing our integration plans for the ERMP program of record. We believe we can integrate the UGCS into that as soon as 2013.
One of the things we have done in the Army that sets us in good stead with our users and [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] is that we’ve developed solutions that are interoperable. They communicate. If you buy and field disparate aircraft that don’t communicate with one another or that require their own unique ground control stations, or they don’t feed into a specific terminal where a soldier can fly it, then you’re actually making a soldier’s life more difficult.
To develop an architecture that ties them all together, we established the RIAC last year. We will have all our current aircraft and systems represented, as well as our ground control stations, so that we can do rapid integration of new technologies and can test interoperability. We have a priority out there that allows us to fly the hours we need to get that work done. It will allow us to field new capabilities to the warfighter at a much more rapid pace than the standard acquisition approach.
DS: What is one of the key technical challenges associated with developing the UGCS?
Gonzalez: The aircraft are all different and have different capabilities. For example, the ERMP is a weaponized system with four Hellfire missiles. The Shadow is not weaponized. When you use a single ground control station for both of those, there are additional safeguards because there are tactics that you use on a weaponized system that you don’t use on an unweaponized system. But the overarching goal is to have one system where you can train operators for each of our aircraft. That allows us to create a universal operator that can operate any of those aircraft, and if he has to take control of one and land it in an emergency, he can do so. There are technical challenges that we’re working through, but we’re making great progress.
DS: What is your most pressing need from industry?
Gonzalez: Our biggest challenge is always space, weight and power. We’re looking for sensors with less volume, less weight and less power because being able to integrate smaller systems into our aircraft means we can fly longer. Specifically, we are looking for smaller signals intelligence payloads, smaller synthetic aperture radar, high-definition payloads and communication payloads. In the future, we will be integrating those payloads into our ERMP. And finally, we’re always looking for precision targeting solutions to make our targeting data more accurate.
DS: PM UAS is leading the Army's effort to fly unmanned aircraft in civil airspace. What does that entail?
Gonzalez: We are developing a ground-based, sense-and-avoid system that will allow unmanned aircraft to fly in the national airspace system. Last year, we demonstrated for the [Federal Aviation Administration] a system using ground radar that characterized the airspace and gives us situational awareness of commercial aircraft coming into the area of operations for UAS so we can land those UAS safely while the commercial aircraft pass through.
We are in the final stages of preparing a safety case that we will present to the FAA, and with their approval, we will be able to use that ground-based sense-and-avoid system to open the door into that access. We’re proud of that effort, and while it is a small step, it is important in the overall goal of getting increased access to the national airspace.