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FEATURE ARTICLE  

Remotely-Piloted Air Vehicles Are Coveted for Coastal Warfare 

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by Stephen Willingham 

Despite occasional crashes and lost aircraft, unmanned air vehicles will become increasingly popular as intelligence-gathering instruments for U.S. military commanders, said Navy and Marine Corps officials. The sea services, particularly, believe that these platforms, called UAVs, will help them fight more effectively in coastal areas, where future conflicts are expected to unfold.

A case in point was the use of UAVs during the Kosovo air war to collect data on enemy movements and potential targets, noted Navy Capt. Rand D. LeBouvier, head of the newly created Aviation Systems Branch of the Navy’s Expeditionary Warfare Division. It did not matter that several aircraft were lost to enemy fire, because the alternative—losing human pilots—is much worse, he said.

LeBouvier spoke at this year’s annual conference on expeditionary warfare in Panama City, Fla., sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association. He encouraged companies in the UAV business to focus on trying to expand the UAVs’ capacity to carry a broader array of sensor payloads. “Don’t concentrate too much on the airframe,” he said.

Among the most challenging technological hurdles in the UAV community today, he said, is the ability to operate these drones in a cluttered air space, which the Navy and Marine Corps must share with the Army, the Air Force and foreign allies.

Problems could arise, for example, when UAVs—operated by remote-control—fly into an area where they encounter a blizzard of radio control signals emitted by other aircraft.

The Navy, meanwhile, is focusing on deploying UAVs aboard ships, which also presents signal interference challenges, particularly on crowded aircraft carrier decks, said LeBouvier.

The Defense Department plans to spend $30 million on UAV research and development during the next four years.

LeBouvier cited a Marine Corps UAV called Dragon-Eye as an example of a system that offers flexibility. Dragon-Eye is a five-piece modular surveillance, reconnaissance UAV, which weighs about four and a half pounds and can be carried in a backpack.

According to Jim McMains, science administrator at the Marine Warfighting Laboratory, the aircraft, once assembled, is hand-launched “like a paper airplane.”

The UAV has a 45-inch wingspan and can operate for 17 minutes on a rechargeable battery. One hour of uninterrupted operation requires a lithium oxide, non-rechargeable battery, he said. The UAV can be programmed, before launch, to return to a pre-assigned site.

“It has a 10-kilometer range and can be handed-off, while in flight, for use by other units,” said McMains.

Dragon-Eye is operated by a wearable ground-control system with a four-inch by six-inch video display that can be worn on the forearm, he said. The display features point-and-click operation.

The Naval Research Laboratory, which is developing Dragon-Eye, also has fashioned special glasses that allow operators to see the view offered by any one of three, interchangeable camera lenses that attach to the nose cone of the aircraft. Three types of camera lenses are available. They are color, electro-optical, low-light and infrared.

“If an enemy tank is spotted, the Dragon-Eye can be programmed to keep this vehicle in view and monitor its movements,” McMains explained. “The Dragon-Eye can also be reprogrammed once it is airborne.”

Worries that enemy troops might be alerted to the nearby presence of U.S. forces—and perhaps be able to follow the surveillance aircraft back to its point of origin—are allayed somewhat by the fact that Dragon-Eye’s twin electric engines are nearly impossible to hear “even when it is right overhead,” McMains asserted. “This is a fully autonomous vehicle.”

Dragon-Eye eventually will be equipped with chemical/biological agent detector-sensors, he said.

The reason that other surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities haven’t been included is that Dragon-Eye is what McMains called “a rapid acquisition program.”

“We are going to be in production in three years from the beginning of the program,” McMains said. “Normally, a program such as this takes six to eight years. We accomplished this by not allowing any add-on capabilities. We told everybody [Navy and Marines], don’t even ask. Adding capabilities is what delays things [programs].”

Dragon-Eye is expected to enter full production by the end of 2002, McMains said. A manufacturer is still to be selected.

The production unit price goal is $2,000 to $3,000 for one aircraft, said McMains. The ground control unit will run between $8,000 to $10,000 a piece.

Keeping costs low will make this “instant surveillance device” available to the battalion and company level, he continued. “The bigger and the more expensive the platform, the higher the level of control is going to be,” reasoned McMains. “Control of the Dragon-Eye has been designed especially for the lower level. ... Enemy troops can hide from the human eye, but they can’t hide from IR cameras.”

Information collected by Dragon-Eye also can be linked to other reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition (RSTA) assets, including robotic sensors and larger UAV platforms, McMains said.

This creates what he called a RSTA web, “that feeds all of this [information] into a funnel and then pumps out an overall battlefield picture for the commander.”

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., of Stratford, Conn., has developed another small UAV system for the Marine Corps, called Dragon Warrior—designed for use in both urban and dispersed battlefield situations. It can fly as a fixed-wing aircraft or as a rotor-wing.

The system features a shrouded rotor-blade technology that affords additional protection for ground forces operating beneath this 240-pound surveillance, reconnaissance aircraft. It can carry a 25-pound to 35-pound sensor payload.

The Dragon Warrior has a maximum speed of 125 knots and an operational radius of 100 nautical miles, according to Sikorsky. It can stay on station, or assigned mission area, for as long as two hours.

One of the main reasons that the Marine Corps is interested in Dragon Warrior, officials stated, is its adaptability for operating in confined spaces while in support of troops engaged in urban operations.

Further development of Dragon Warrior has hit a snag until a decision is made about whether or not the Army Night Vision Laboratory is going to absorb the program. According to sources close to the program, the Army definitely is poised to take control, but currently lacks the funds to do so.

Officials at the Marine Warfighting Laboratory and Sikorsky declined to comment on the status of the program until “a contractual dispute is resolved.”

Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth, Texas, makers of the V-22 Osprey, also have built a tilt-rotor UAV.

Bell’s UAV is capable of hovering like a helicopter and flying like an airplane, by rotating its propellers. The company originally developed the Eagle Eye for a competition to supply the Navy with a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAV that could be deployed aboard ships. The Navy wants to replace the Pioneer, a conventional take-off and landing unmanned aircraft that requires a rocket for lift assistance.

The Navy ended up awarding a $94 million contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. for the development of Fire Scout, a UAV based on an upgraded version of a small, manned helicopter.

A Bell-Textron official declined to disclose the cost of the Eagle Eye, citing “proprietary information,” but indicated that Bell-Textron’s price is competitive with the Army’s Hunter UAV, which costs $1.2 million per copy and the Fire Scout, which costs about $1.5 million.

In November, the Fire Scout crashed during a test flight at the Naval Air Warfare Center, in China Lake, Calif.

In spite of the setback, the Navy issued a statement indicating that the crash and loss of a prototype air vehicle would not affect the program schedule.

At the time of the crash, the Fire Scout had been performing risk-reduction tests related to take-off and landing, said Navy officials There were no personnel injuries or damage to ground equipment.

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