Simplifying control of unmanned systems

Architecture needed that will enable warfighters to control unmanned vehicles with a single device

Military and industry researchers are working on ways of simplifying the control of unmanned systems as the number and types used by the armed services continue to grow.

The goal is to develop an architecture that would enable individual service members to control different types of unmanned vehicles with a single device – not just to make them work together better on the battlefield, but also to save money. Currently, each unmanned system has its own unique control architecture.

In the past, the lack of interoperability has made unmanned systems less effective than they could be and more costly, leading the Pentagon to order the development of a control architecture that would be as open as possible.

Over the past year, engineers at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) have developed software that enables a single controller to talk to different kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The software tests were done with the Bi-Directional Remote Video Terminal (BDVRT), a handheld device about the size of an iPad developed by Kutta Technologies of Phoenix, Ariz. for use by Army troops in Afghanistan and Iraq .

In the experiments, engineers were able to fully control the vehicle and its payload utilizing two different software sets, with the controllers using each one to hand the vehicle back and forth.

“We were essentially able to take something written by one company and plug in another and still control the vehicle,” said Wayne Perras, director of experimentation for ONR’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) department. “We’ve used old software and we made it now completely interoperable.”

Computer code that took years to develop was rewritten and made interoperable across a number of UAVs in just 30 days as part of the experiment, Perras said. The language was optimized to enable each vehicle to perform its unique functions with a common interface, replacing what he called the “ludicrous and totally unaffordable” structure of unique control systems.

“It doesn’t need to have any special handling,” he added.

The experiments, which started in July 2012, indicated that a common architecture can also be used to control unmanned ground, sea surface and underwater vehicles as well, but that hasn’t yet been confirmed by testing, said Jerry Desrosiers, technology transition and experimentation lead for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I.

Perras said the Pentagon expects to save $86 million from the use of interoperability software to control unmanned systems.

The defense industry also is working on the issue. Northrop Grumman in December demonstrated that open architecture-based command and control software and hardware could be used to operate an Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.

The demonstration was part of the company’s efforts toward a common mission-management control system product that can be used on a variety of unmanned platforms.

“This demonstration validates our approach to common, modular, multiplatform mission-control systems,” said Doug Valenzuela, Northrop Grumman's program manager for the Ground Station Technical Refresh program. “We were able to reuse components from proven programs and integrate them into a common standards-based infrastructure to establish a baseline that will meet the requirements of multiple programs. This is truly a huge step toward meeting the objective of a common UAS mission control solution.”

Additional Online Resources

DOD Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap

Air Force RPA and UAV Strategic Vision

Army UAS Roadmap

About the Author

Charles Hoskinson is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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