Washington: Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and nothing begets necessity like war. Which explains why some of the most impressive innovations in the ever-evolving field of unmanned aircraft – the unclassified innovations, at least — are emanating from, of all places, the armed service built to fight primarily on land.
The Air Force was the first branch of the military to arm a remotely piloted aircraft used in combat — the Hellfire missile-carrying MQ-1 Predator — and the first to field devices that let manned aircraft crews and ground troops see unmanned aircraft video in real time.
As the Army recently demonstrated at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, though, the nation’s land force is aggressively coming up with shrewd ways to expand and exploit the utility and potential of what it prefers to call Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS. Tim Owings, deputy project manager, Unmanned Aircraft Systems for the Army says the reason is war. “This is a very, very real mission area for us every day on the battlefield, so we are trying to innovate and also create ways to become more efficient,” Owings told Breaking Defense.
At Dugway, three Army aviation project offices – Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Apache Attack Helicopter and Armed Scout Helicopter – collaborated in the first of what’s projected to be a series of biennial exercises called Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capability, or MUSIC. The event showed off some wow-worthy new technologies and tactics aimed at getting more bang for the bandwidth out of the Army’s fast-growing fleet of unmanned aircraft, which now number five and will soon include six types, ranging in size from the hand-thrown and back-packable RQ-11B Raven to the 3,200-lb. (fully loaded) Predator-derivative, Hellfire-carrying MQ-1C Gray Eagle.
The 2011 MUSIC exercise used a complicated mock mission to demonstrate:
- A new Universal Ground Control Station, or UGCS, made by made by AAI Textron Systems of Hunt Valley, MD., that will let Army UAS operators fly any of the service’s three largest remote control aircraft from the same trailer-housed console.
- An equally new, laptop-sized Mini Universal Ground Control Station, or MUGCS, made by AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif., that can operate any of three small UAS the same company makes for the Army — the 4.2-lb. Raven, the 13-lb. Puma and the yet-unfielded Wasp micro-drone, which weighs less than a pound.
- New software developed by the Phoenix company Kutta Tech that, along with a new bidirectional antenna, transforms AAI’s formerly receive-only One System Remote Video Terminal, into a device that allows ground troops to not only see video from a UAS or manned aircraft but also take control of a UAS and send it to areas they want to see with a few mouse clicks on a digital map.
- A new “Triclops” version of the Gray Eagle that carries two extra sensor balls, one under each wing, each of which can be controlled by ground troops or manned aircraft crews equipped with the right gear to communicate with the UAS.
- Newly developed tactics in which ground troops and helicopter crews can take control of UAS sensors, hand them off among each other, and share or relay UAS images, the better to coordinate operations and dispense with trying to tell each other where targets are by radio.
“We demonstrated flawless exchange of video products between the complete unmanned aircraft systems fleet, including all the small unmanned aircraft and the larger systems, such as Shadow, Hunter and Gray Eagle,” Owings said. “We also demonstrated flawless and seamless integration between the unmanned fleet and the manned fleet.” The 2011 MUSIC exercise was also the first time the UGCS and MUGCS had been used in such a demonstration, he added.
AAI’s new UGCS will be sent to Afghanistan next year as the control station for the company’s rail-launched RQ-7B Shadow UAS, Owings said. The Army plans to deploy two Shadow platoons, consisting of four aircraft and one UGCS each, as part of a new Full Spectrum Combat Aviation Brigade it’s creating. The UGCS will later become the standard control station for the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Gray Eagle and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s MQ-5B Hunter. The bidirectional OSRVT also is to be deployed next year, Owings said.
The MUSIC exercise was scripted to show all of the above and the flexibility they will give Army forces in a mini-drama seen by reporters and VIPs seated in a hangar before an array of big screens. The screens showed UAS and helicopter video while speakers piped in radio conversations among the participants in the exercise and narration by a master of ceremonies.
The players used encrypted data links to share and swap surveillance video shot by UAS and helicopters as the friendly force “captured” and “killed” role-player insurgents.
First, a Raven began following a red pickup truck driven by a “suspected insurgent courier” near a fictional fo rward operating base, sharing its video with a role-player soldier on the ground equipped with a bidirectional One System Remote Video Terminal. As the truck drove away from the base and the Raven neared its range limit, a Shadow controlled from a Universal Ground Control Station was sent to take up tracking the truck.
The role-player soldier with the OSRVT first switched to watching the Shadow’s video, then took control of the UAS’s camera himself to “get a closer look” when the truck’s driver parked near a building and got out. Before the OSRVT user could zoom in with the Shadow’s camera, though, the suspect walked under a canopy next to the building, making it impossible to see him from the overhead view provided by the UAS. In response, the task force commander sent a Boeing Co. AH-64D Apache Block II attack helicopter to hover at low altitude and point the camera in its targeting sensor at the building from an angle offering a view of the suspect. When the Apache arrived, the soldier using the OSRVT relinquished control of the Shadow’s sensor ball and switched from watching the Shadow’s video to receiving the Apache’s. As the Apache crew and OSRVT user watched the suspected courier, a blue pickup truck showed up from another direction and parked. Its driver got out, greeted the suspected courier, took a bag from him, then got back in his truck and drove away. The task force commander ordered the Apache to break off and follow the blue truck while the Shadow circling the building stayed with the red one. The Apache followed the blue truck until it stopped down the road. At the same time, the task force commander received an order to send his Shadow UAS back to its brigade, where it was needed for a different mission, so the commander requested and received the use of a three-sensor ball Triclops Gray Eagle to take over watching the red truck.
Shortly after the Gray Eagle arrived, the task force commander’s Apache was ordered to break off watching the blue pickup truck and go to another area where a friendly convoy had been attacked. To fill that gap, the task force commander radioed a soldier carrying a Mini Universal Ground Control Station to take control of one of the Gray Eagle’s three sensor balls and use it to monitor the blue truck and its driver.
As the scenario continued, another soldier with a Mini UGCS and a third using the OSRVT took control of the Gray Eagle’s other two sensor balls to watch both the suspect with the red truck ashe drove away and the building he’d just left. At that point, the narrator noted, three soldiers at separate locations on the ground were using one air vehicle to monitor three targets in separate locations. The exercise continued at some length, with the narrator explaining that a Quick Reaction Force had killed the blue truck’s driver as the Gray Eagle left the scene and a handheld Puma UAS took over surveillance of the red pickup truck driver. Now the red truck driver entered a “city,” where he was “captured and interrogated by a host nation security patrol” and revealed that his insurgent group was able to make improvised explosive devices using shells from a disabled U.S. tank.
The show ended with an MQ-5B Hunter flown from the Universal Ground Control Station – the same UGCS used to fly the Shadow and Gray Eagle earlier – directing an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter, made by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., as it destroyed the tank with rockets. The only thing MUSIC’s planners wanted to do but couldn’t, Owings said, was show how the crew of the Army’s newest Apache, the Block III, could take over not just the sensor payload of a UAS but its flight controls as well. The Block III, however, was unavailable because that it was still being tested in preparation for an expected Nov. 2 rollout in Mesa.
These new technologies and tactics — which were demonstrated mainly by contractors for the companies that make the new gear but which Owings said are generally “amazingly simple” to use — would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago. Preparing for an exercise like MUSIC, he added, helped concentrate the minds of those developing the technology and tactics.
“It acts as a forcing function to get all of our programs aligned, and it forces that development at a rate that probably wouldn’t happen without something like this,” Owings said. Being at war, though, “accelerated us probably at least eight to tenfold.”