UAS & Robotics

Army gives Apache pilots control over UAVs

Army Gray Eagle UAS 

Manned and unmanned aircraft have worked together for years, with drones sharing video surveillance with pilots to give them better situational awareness. But the level of teamwork pretty much ended there, as the unmanned aircraft were controlled from a ground station.

The Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation has now taken the next step, successfully testing a system with a One System Remote Video Terminal that gave control of two accompanying UAS to the pilot of an Apache helicopter.

The tests took place over the past two months at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and El Mirage Flight Test Facility, Calif., the Army said in a release. Using the AH-64 "E" model Apache along with Gray Eagle and Shadow UAS, the tests demonstrated true interoperability between different aviation systems, giving the Apache pilot control over the flight, sensors and payload of the UAS, the Army said.

A key was enabling bidirectional transmission between the Apache and the UAS via the One System Remote Video Terminal, or OSRVT. “Right now, the OSRVT allows the receipt of data from different UAS," Doug Wolfe, interoperability lead for Common Systems Integration in PEO Aviation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, said in the release. "But the next version will make OSRVT bidirectional so that it cannot only receive from all UAS, but also transmit to all UAS to control their payloads."

Giving helicopter pilots command and control of UAS is a significant step toward the Pentagon’s long-range plan for a more networked force of manned and unmanned systems. It would also boost the capabilities at a pilot’s fingertips. The Gray Eagle, the largest UAS in the Army’s fleet, is used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air support and convoy protection, IED detection and destruction, as a communications hub and for firing weapons such as Hellfire missiles. The smaller, catapult-launched Shadow is used for ISR, targeting and assessment.

Apache pilots are trained in flying the UAS from the helicopter. Prior to the field tests, the development team held tests in the Joint Systems Integration Lab, which included laser tests of the Shadow with the Apache pilot in control, the Army said.

"From an operational standpoint, this provides the Apache with another pair of eyes higher in the sky and a third crew member from the Ground Control Station operator," said Sean Gilpin, UAS Level IV interoperability lead in the Apache Project Office. "Apache can use the Shadow sensors to detect and identify targets of opportunity while still keeping the Apache a safe distance out of harm's way.”

The test were developed and conducted with support from the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center and a team of contractors including Textron, General Atomics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

"It is a total force multiplier that can bring all systems in the battlefield—the UAS, the OSRVT and the Apache—together to accomplish the mission,” Wolfe said. “It provides more options and capabilities for situation awareness."

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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