UAVs adapt to austere times with greater efficiency

Pentagon proceeds with a wide array of unmanned vehicle programs despite deep budget cuts

Col. Bill Tart, director of the Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Capabilities Division, warned at an industry association conclave in April: “The numbers [of UAVs] are gonna get smaller. They just are.” The current stock of military unmanned aircraft vehicles is about 7,000.

Conference attendees were urged to concentrate on “link surety” and advanced encryption of data, Defense Department requirements for electronic warfare suites, electronic attack, jammers, air-launched decoys, microwave power modules and enhanced optics.

The need to do more with less seems clear in a time of sequestration and looming defense cuts—or more accurately, the need to work differently and smarter, with better or repurposed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gear and new constructs for their usage. 

Consider imaging, the cornerstone of ISR and targeting. The original one or two sensors now function as multiple sensors, augmenting circumscribed soda-straw views with mega-wide ones while maintaining or improving resolution.

This has been enabled by several remarkable camera and sensor systems, particularly two related ones: DARPA/BAE Systems’ rotating ball-headed ARGUS-IS, and the Air Force/Sierra Nevada Gorgon Stare belly pods. Both modalities are staggeringly competent for multi-intelligence missions and adaptable to various platforms.

Gorgon Stare (GS) is a video-capture technology for the Air Force. A Wide-Area Aerial Surveillance System (WAAS), it’s typically mounted on General Atomics, Inc.’s MQ-9 Reaper attack drones.

GS’s underslung pod system, with 12 cameras and sensors, gives Reaper and its hunter-killer ilk two key chief abilities: longer loiter time and identification of individuals or objects from complex background noise. It’s been much praised.

Dave Bullock, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s vice president for persistent surveillance systems, said that the system, deployed in Afghanistan for two years, will continue on station despite troop reductions. “These combat support roles of providing direct threat warning, situational awareness…and targeting support will become even more important.”

The planned deployment of Gorgon Stare II (GSII) later this year, Bullock said, means “a significantly greater ISR capability with an equally greater operational impact,” incorporating enhancements like independent sensor pods: EO (Electro-Optical sensor from BAE – ARGUS-IS) and infrared (IR Sensor (Exelis – Knight Owl).

The expanded field of view and range will “significantly increase” the persistent day/night surveillance area covering ground installations and extended combat operations. Tracking, identifying and characterizing threats out to eight kilometers will be “vastly improved” with GSII imagery resolution and give earlier warning to Allied forces, Bullock said.

Future plans for “force-multiplying” GS systems include incorporating multi-intelligence capabilities that improve threat identification to support more rapid battle management and resource allocation decisions.

The other preeminent WAAS technology is Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (ARGUS-IS). This technology, along with a nighttime Infrared (I-R) iteration, was developed by DARPA for UAV-hungry special operations. BAE Systems provides the optics and processing technologies.

With a 1.8 billion-pixel camera as its centerpiece, the system offers startling improvements for ISR. The telescopic, steerable, gimbaled imagers can resolve shoe-sized details from almost 20,000 feet. With two ARGUS systems, all of New York City could be surveilled 24/7, experts estimate.

According to BAE inventor Dr.Yiannis Antoniadis, capturing all this data at once is simple: Combine 300 5-megapixel camera-phone imaging chips (sensors) and get busy focusing with your four image-stabilizing optical telescopic lenses. Result: the world’s largest resolution camera offering multiple video streams and stills in real time. Imagery is aggregated into a wall-sized mosaic for instant study.

Antoniades, BAE Systems’ ISR technology director, said, “ARGUS-IS can acquire data up to 10 frames a second and saves full field of view data at 3.3 frames a second for forensic analysis. The ground processing system uses intelligent, very high-data density and access speed archive appliances, called DSTARs, developed specifically for [WAAS] applications.”

In addition to Reaper, the system can be integrated into Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk/Navy BAMS-D Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator and aerostat surveillance blimps, said Antoniades.

Also, since ARGUS-IS computes accurate geoposition of all pixels in the entire field of view, “It can be used to cue other platforms to potential objects of interest and vice versa,” Antoniades added, depending on datalinks. The camera is being considered for additional multiple wide-area persistent surveillance programs.

Sierra Nevada executive Mike Meermans noted, “Gorgon Stare Increment 2 is ARGUS-IS. We are the first operational implementation of this technology. Increment 1 is still deployed and providing great support, with system availability rates exceeding 90 percent since it arrived—an unheard-of number for a brand-new capability.”

The Pentagon is studying how to secure the National Airspace System (NAS) for safe UAV operation (“deconfliction”) in crowded skies. Lars Ericsson, chief of the technical management division for Army Unmanned Aviation Systems, said that integrating UAV/UAS such as Army Gray Eagle could be achieved by the new Ground Based Sense and Avoid System. It’s the first such system, he said, and a fundamental part of the Army approach to safe integration.

“Advance work and acquisition is ongoing,” Ericsson said, “to provide [the safety] systems and capabilities to aid Gray Eagle ops in the NAS.” The platform also will be fielded by the elite Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

Another eagle is Boeing/Insitu’s ScanEagle UAV. A multi-view model, it’s reportedly in such demand that there are calls for each of 38 Army divisions to be equipped with its own.

Curt Chesnutt, Insitu senior vice president, ScanEagle Programs, described the latest camera/sensor upgrades: “Our EO900 [Electro-Optical] sensor provides nearly a five-fold zoom improvement from our current daytime imager. With this level of clarity, you can see details such as facial characteristics from thousands of feet away.”

With this new sensor’s picture-in-picture views, analysts can see a broad area for situational awareness and zoom to specific objects. Insitu’s Dual Imager also permits users to fly day and very low-light night missions in a single ScanEagle sortie.

In manned-unmanned teaming scenarios, with the firm’s common ground-control station (ICOMC2), an operator can “control multiple UAVs and receive imagery from disparate aircraft, all from a single operator workstation,” Chesnutt said.

Chesnutt declined to comment about weaponizing or acquisition, but he noted, “Our systems are designed to provide the best possible full-motion imagery available for the size, weight and power of ScanEagle and [the follow-on] Integrator.”

In the surging area of terrestrial/UAV communications, Ryan Hartman, Insitu senior vice president, integrator programs, added, “The Integrator Unmanned Aircraft System is designed for rapid payload integration.” It’s integrated several communications relay radios, helping ground troops communicate “where physical obstructions or distance from each other prevent [this].”

ScanEagle itself is also evolving. “Insitu’s Integrator UAS is our next generation aircraft,” said company spokeswoman Sheila Gindes. Leveraging earlier successes, the modular Integrator can carry a 37.5-pound payload, “and with open architecture and rapid payload, integration capability was designed for interoperability.” Manufactured by General Atomics, Integrator is an extended-range, multipurpose system, Hellfire missile-equipped, and designed for long-endurance surveillance, communications relay and weapons-delivery missions in combat zones.

Such hunter-killers are the most heatedly discussed of all UAVs. Most attack platforms aren’t stand-alones, given DOD procurement limitations, but extant ISR platforms such as Predator or Reaper. The intent these days seems to be to focus on weaponizing less-expensive, proven systems.

Meanwhile, Predator’s much bigger offshoot, Reaper, enjoys numerous advantages over its progenitor. General Atomics officials say it offers greater reliability, flexibility and overall performance. The platform’s twice as fast and has nine times the horsepower and 500 percent more payload capacity. Endurance is nearly 30 hours at speeds of 275 mph, with an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet and a 3,850-pound payload, including 3,000 pounds of “external stores” (i.e., weapons).

Reaper has been acquired by the Air Force, Navy, Homeland Security Department, NASA, and the French and British Air Forces.

Whether pure surveillance models or missile-armed, unmanned craft are vastly less expensive than purchasing, operating and maintaining B-52s, F-22s, F-35s and other manned aircraft. Yet they can share data links with such aircraft and other unmanned systems.

Some impressive unmanned aerial programs are in limbo, key among them:

  • Phantom Eye. A second demo is planned for sometime in 2013.
  • Global Observer. This was a victim of budget cuts and was shelved.
  • Lockheed-Martin’s High-Altitude Long-Endurance Demonstrator (HALE-D). This was a victim of budget cuts and was shelved.
  • Qinetiq’s Zephyr. After record-setting flights in 2010, the maker reportedly has no further plans for it.

It’s unclear how long fiscal austerity measures will slow the transition from manned aircraft to reliance on unmanned or optionally manned systems. The Air Force F-35 fighter, after all, will cost an estimated $200 to $300 billion before deployment-readiness, and human pilots are expensive to train. Conversely, UAV fleets are orders of magnitude less costly (even the big Predator is less than $2 million apiece.)

In April, jet and rotorcraft pilots got some ominous news from the Air Combat Command: Since 1991, active squadrons have shrunk from 83 to 31; fighter pilots from 7,000 to 3,250; and fighter aircraft from 1,540 to 700. Also emblematic, in 2011 the “Home of the Fighter Pilot” sign before Nellis AFB was quietly removed.

Defense expert John Pike, who runs the Global Security website, said that even Lockheed-Martin’s in-development F-35 II may one day be “droned.” That aircraft, he observed, “might be the last aircraft with an ejector seat.”

Additional Online Resources

AGM Hellfire Missile

ARGUS Demonstration 2013

Gorgon Stare Video 2011

About the Author

David Walsh is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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