Unmanned Systems

Faster computer processing and cybersecurity upgrades improve Army drone controls

The Army and Textron Systems are adding new computer processing power and cyber-hardening technology to the current inventory of ground control stations that operate drones in combat, service officials said.  

The Textron-built Universal Ground Control Station (UGCS), which currently operates the Army’s Shadow and Grey Eagle drones, is being upgraded with new performance-enhancing software to secure drone controls and drone video feeds from hacking, interference and cyberattacks.

“The UGCS hardware obsolescence effort replaces components within the existing UGCS, reducing weight and easing the burden on heavily-laden tactical vehicles.  The new hardware will provide increased computing power, accommodating the new software architecture developed under the software obsolescence effort,” said Capt. Scott Zimmerman, Assistant Product Director for UGCS.

The current upgrade will use an emerging Army software architecture called Future Airborne Capability Environment, or FACE, Zimmerman added. The re-architected software is designed to lower costs and accommodate new technologies and upgrades more efficiently, while strengthening cybersecurity.

“We continue to support those products by developing new features, capability sets for them, building and producing new GCSs,” said Wayne Prender, Vice President, Control and Surface Systems, Textron Systems.

These semi-annual upgrades are part of a multi-pronged Army strategy to sustain and improve ground-control technology for drones now in combat as well as those planned for future years.

 “Over the next year, the team will continue the software infrastructure build, which will serve as the framework within which software applications will operate.  Software applications will be selected from the ‘best of breed’ across industry,” Zimmerman said.

Securing drone feeds and drone operations is increasingly important in today’s combat environment because enemies and potential adversaries are rapidly acquiring “jamming” and “hacking” technologies that give them an ability to interfere with or compromise U.S. drone operations.

The Army has already been using what it calls “manned-unmanned teaming” in Afghanistan where an Apache or Kiowa helicopter can view real-time video feeds from nearby drones. This technology also allows helicopter crews to control the sensor payload of nearby drones. Army helicopter pilots and acquisition program managers explain that this technology has greatly expedited attack missions by giving helicopters faster and better target information at longer ranges.

Textron developers say its current UGCSs and One-System-Remote-Video-Terminals help facilitate this technology.

“A dismounted user, vehicle-mounted user in a ground vehicle or somebody in a helicopter has the ability to take control of a sensor that is on an unmanned aircraft and maneuver,” Prender explained. “With that control they can provide a navigation through the gimbal of the aircraft.”

The Army’s long-term plan for ground control stations includes work on emerging requirements for a system which allows for simultaneous operation of multiple drones and Textron is developing its own multi-drone, multi-domain control technology designed to meet these emerging requirements called Synturian.

About the Author

Kris Osborn is a former editor of Defense Systems.

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