The military services operate nearly 4,000 unmanned aircraft, most of which have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Army alone is flying 1,200 drones in surveillance combat missions.
Such wealth of reconnaissance drones has been welcome by U.S. troops as they hunt for insurgents. Tactical commanders, however, may not be making the best use of the technology because the data collected by the unmanned aircraft — still images and video — often cannot be shared across branches of the military, nor can they be made available to troops in the field who don’t have access to the Defense Department’s classified computer networks.
Unmanned air vehicles are valuable tools for commanders, but their utility is limited because systems are not interoperable, said Army Brig. Gen. James Terry, director of the future force integration directorate at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“The UAV solutions we have today are point to point,” Terry said at a Pentagon news conference.
The Army has yet to figure out how to integrate multiple sources of data in order to get a better understanding of what’s happening in a large area of operations, not just in the narrow sector surveyed by a single UAV, Terry explained.
A lone UAV flying over an area of interest can stream live video to an operator on the ground who is equipped with a so-called “remote operations video enhanced receiver” (Rover), a line-of-sight wireless system about the size of a laptop computer. That technology is useful but still does not solve the problem of how to make the data more widely available, Terry said. Most Rover terminals today are mounted on vehicles, although the Air Force has begun to procure some handheld models.
“I can have the UAV fly over, get a Rover downlink … But how do I push that data down to soldiers and leaders on the ground exercising battle command?” Terry asked.
Senior commanders — both forward deployed and back in the United States — watch Predator feeds around the clock, but that may not be the best way to exploit the technology, he added. Under an ideal scenario, the small units below battalion level that directly engage in combat should have access to the video, Terry said. The Army’s current communications systems only can push data down to the battalion, and even with modern systems, there is latency in full motion streaming because of satellite delays.
The connectivity gaps eventually may be fixed if the Army can successfully develop its next-generation Future Combat Systems network. “With the FCS network, you can push the situational awareness beyond the battalion level, as low as the platoon level,” Terry said. “The leader at that level could see the feed.”
Air Force Gen. Ronald Keys, head of the Air Combat Command, also questioned the value of streaming video that usually is seen out of context. “The conventional wisdom [in Iraq] is that you need full motion video,” Keys said at an industry conference in June. “What I see is that we are using anecdotal pieces of information to prove points. We do lots of things that are not integrated … We don’t do the right analysis.”
A number of technologies, including the Rover, have emerged in recent years to help better exploit UAV video and to integrate the data with other sources of information. The intent is to help target identification specialists, who are known as controllers, more accurately pinpoint enemy locations.
One example is the Army’s remote video terminal, which can directly receive and integrate live video and telemetry data from multiple manned and unmanned aircraft. The Army has purchased several hundred terminals.
Another technology that was recently introduced by the U.S. Joint Forces Command compresses the video from UAVs into downloadable files on a server, which makes it available to users who have access to the Defense Department’s internal classified network. The system, called the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance information service (ISRIS) was intended to help expand the access to UAV video, said Kaye Darone, the project’s technical director.
Soldiers can see streaming video on a Rover terminal, but they can only receive one UAV video at a time, she said. With ISRIS, they can see feeds from multiple UAVs and access archives of completed missions.
The compressed video makes it easier to move across limited electromagnetic spectrum frequencies — commonly referred to as bandwidth — at lower echelons of command, Darone said. “We support battalion and company level … We augment Rover and remote video terminals that support disconnected users.”
The video-compression technology, however, cannot fix the fundamental lack of interoperable UAV systems in the Defense Department. Each UAV model typically comes with its own data links that connect the aircraft to the ground station, which makes them incompatible with other makes or models.
“These are real issues across the UAV community,” Darone said. “At Joint Forces Command, we are very concerned and we are working with the services to standardize the data formats.”
Douglas Cassidy, division chief of joint integrated fires at Joint Forces Command, described current data links as “stovepipes.”
Another problem is that contractors are not always required to make their networks interoperable with other systems, Cassidy told a conference of the Precision Strike Association. “It’s not enough to have a data standard. We have multiple vendors with boxes that don’t pass information,” he said. “Data links are not a rosy picture by any stretch of the imagination.”
Congressional investigators from the Government Accountability Office probed the use of UAVs in current conflicts, and concluded that incompatible UAV systems keep U.S. forces from taking full advantage of these assets.
“While commanders are experiencing mission success with unmanned air systems in ongoing operations, they face challenges in fully optimizing the use of these assets, due in part to the growing number of unmanned aircraft” and the lack of an integrated mechanism for obtaining information,” said Sharon Pickup, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO.
In a report she wrote for the House subcommittee on air and land forces, Pickup noted that the joint air operations command, which is responsible for planning, coordinating, and monitoring all flight activities, “does not have information on how tactical assets embedded in and controlled by tactical units are being used on a daily basis or what missions they have been tasked to support … Nor do tactical units have information on how theater-level assets and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets embedded in other units are being tasked.”
The Defense Department, she added, “continues to face unmanned air systems integration challenges, such as the lack of interoperability and limited communications bandwidth.
“Specifically, some unmanned air systems cannot easily exchange data, sometimes even within a single service, because they were not designed with interoperable communications standards. Additionally, U.S. forces are unable to interchangeably use some payloads from one unmanned air system on another, a capability known as ‘payload commonality.’”
The bandwidth congestion could be solved if drones were able to change to different, less congested, frequency bands. But most systems were not designed to change frequency bands, Pickup said. The Defense Department, she added, is taking steps to address these problems by equipping some drones with the tactical common data link and by developing common ground control stations to improve interoperability.
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