UAVs form communication grid above enemy territory

Unmanned aerial systems can do more than unleash tactical strikes on enemies -- they also help form critical networks for warfighters on the ground

By now, many people have heard of the Predator and other large unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that prowl the skies over Afghanistan, collecting intelligence or delivering precise missile strikes on enemy locations. In the past decade, they have become a prime strategic asset and one that, even in a time of severe budget constrains, the Defense Department still expects to invest in heavily.

Less known is the importance large and small UAS will play in battlefield communications and in delivering intelligence to, and getting data back from, combat forces. The ability of dismounted soldiers to effectively use radios, smart phones and other devices to press their mission will depend on how well a mix of these airborne assets work with those on the ground.

In September 2011, the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation sponsored the first Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capability (MUSIC) exercise to test the advancements made in interoperability in the Army’s UAS Project Office and the Manned-Unmanned Teaming community. Many of the features tested in the exercise are what the UAS program manager intends to fields to soldiers as a part of the Army’s network capability set 13-14.

That capability set, which will begin fielding in fiscal 2013, is expected to produce an overall five-fold increase in network capability.

A critical element for the dismounted soldier that was tested as part of the MUSIC exercise was the One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT), a modular video and data system that enables warfighters to downlink surveillance images and geospatial data directly from both UAS and manned platforms.

The Project Manager’s Office UAS (PM-UAS) provided three systems tested in MUSIC – the OSRVT, the Shadow Tactical UAS and the Raven small UAS – in support of both the Network Integration Evaluation 11.2 and 12.1 exercises. OSRVT could potentially allow anyone with a wearable Joint Tactical Radio System radio to receive streaming video from manned and unmanned assets to provide an overhead picture of a unit’s battlespace.

“OSRVT is the ‘gateway’ for video into the tactical network,” according to Michelle Vigo, interoperability systems engineer, PM-UAS. “It allows for the dismounted soldier on the ground to receive streaming video thus providing for better situational awareness.”

The Raven UAS was fitted with customized JTRS Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit (HMS) communications packages, which the UAS project office said was made possible due to the small size of the HMS radio and the major advances in wireless network communications enabled by the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) used with the software-defined JTRS radios.

The Shadow UAS was used as the communications relay node, using components capable of relaying and routing SRW signals to extend the range of the terrestrial network and to provide command and control messaging between units on the ground and the UAS operators.

The teaming of manned and unmanned aircraft is increasingly driving the way the Army fights, and the demand for UAS continues to increase for both ISR and attack missions. In the middle of 2011, the Army announced a surge of 180 additional Raven systems to Afghanistan, taking the number per combat brigade teams from 15 to 35. It also said it would send another 129 Puma UAS, which would be deployed down to the company level.

However, Northrop Grumman’s Joe Taylor believes the key to providing the dismounted soldier with video and data doesn’t reside so much with the UAS providing a video and data stream but with how the soldier can exploit it.

“The packable UAS are out there, and I think the Army is getting its arms around what the brigade group systems should look like, but all of them are pretty much stovepiped right now,” he said. “Each UAS comes with a screen and it reports just to that screen. The key is to bring the data and video that the UAS is collecting to the network so that it’s widely exploitable over the network.”

The burden should not be put on the dismounted soldier to figure this out, he said. Solutions have to be provided by others to integrate all of the data onto the common network. That’s where the real opportunity lies, he feels, and why Northrop with its JTacH smart phone app focused on exploiting Battle Command Brigade and Below Blue Force tracking, “because it was an already existing network at the tactical level.”

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