In coming decades, unmanned aerial vehicles will expand their role in warfare beyond intelligence gathering to become a vital component of attack, transport and resupply missions, said Army officials.
“Unmanned aerial systems must provide the ability not only to see, but to shape, the battlefield,” Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said in a keynote address at the Army Aviation Association of America conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
A key message the Army wants to get across is that unmanned aircraft are not just a fad. “They have forever changed the way the Army operates,” Chiarelli said.
His speech last month coincided with the release of the much-anticipated “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap.” The document outlines the Army’s plan to develop its own fleet of UAVs over the next 25 years, when all aviation missions are slated to transition to predominantly unmanned. Some missions, such as cargo resupply, will be performed mostly autonomously, while others, like attack, will be performed mostly by remote operators.
The Army plans to train more than 2,000 UAS operators and maintainers in fiscal year 2012 — a roughly 800 percent increase in the course of a decade.
Advancements in technology during the next two decades could allow manufacturers to build unmanned vehicles that could replace current cargo helicopters and ferry troops to battle, officials said. They urged contractors to find ways to reduce the weight of unmanned aircraft parts so that UAVs can carry heavier payloads.
Officials hailed recent improvements in command-and-control technologies that allow operators to operate multiple UAVs from a single device.
The expansion of the UAV fleet also will require the Army to find more efficient and less costly ways to maintain the aircraft. The answer, according to officials, is condition-based maintenance.
Nearly half of the Army’s aviation fleet is currently on a condition-based maintenance schedule. Those aircraft have on-board sensors that measure deterioration. The Army plans to shift all aircraft to condition-based maintenance schedules by 2017, said Christopher Smith, director of the Army’s condition-based maintenance program.
Aircraft in the program have shown a 10-percent increase in the number of hours they’re able to fly. This is because their sensors detect problems earlier than traditional inspections do, giving maintenance officials more leeway when drawing up repair schedules, Smith said.
“With your car, you have a maintenance schedule that is designed by your manufacturer to ensure you don’t have a failure that causes your car to be unavailable to you for a period of time,” he said. “What we’ve been able to do is install sensors … that allow us to see those failures 25 to 50 flying hours in advance.”
In three cases, the sensors have detected failing equipment that would have led to the loss of the aircraft and possibly the crew, Smith added.
Also in the mid-term, pilots will gain the ability to control UAVs from the cockpits of manned vehicles. Starting next year, Apache attack helicopters will be upgraded with the ability to operate UAVs from within the cockpit. Apache pilots will assume control of the UAVs from ground crews and return them to the crews once they’ve completed their missions.
“It’s like the difference between watching a football game with one camera and watching it with multiple cameras,” said Col. Shane Openshaw, project manager for Apache helicopters. “It improves the overall situational awareness of the pilot and crew. In the past, they may have had to rely on voice communications and digital messages.”
The Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter often flies with a partner Shadow UAV, which gives the Kiowa pilot greater awareness of what is happening on the ground. When pilots are able to control UAVs from the cockpit, officials said, they will have multiple lines of sight on a target, and will be able to see more clearly what’s on the other side of mountains or buildings.
Col. Christopher B. Carlile, director of the Unmanned Air Systems Center of Excellence, lauded this increased use of “manned-unmanned teaming.” Missions that incorporate both piloted and unpiloted aircraft are more effective because they capitalize on what each type of aircraft does best, he added.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, director of Army aviation, echoed Carlile’s sentiments. “We’re going to stop talking about manned-unmanned teaming and actually start doing it,” he said.
Carlile also touted optionally piloted vehicles — aircraft that can be flown manned or unmanned. Some manned aircraft are being converted to optionally piloted. “It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to be able to buy a large number of unmanned vehicles that are separate from our manned fleet,” he said.
Carlile said he believes that in coming decades the public will feel safer riding in UAVs than in manned aircraft. Currently, there’s much skepticism about transporting people in UAVs, he said. “The technology is going to take us there pretty quick,” he said. “But how many of you are willing to leave here … and get on an airplane without a pilot sitting at the front?”
He added that he hopes industry works aggressively on innovations but that “the Army can’t have a love affair with technology.” New technologies, he said, “have to give us benefits that far outweigh what we have to pay for them.
“We have to allow machines to do what they do best, which is making decisions based on binary data,” he continued. “And we have to allow humans to do what they do best, which is making decisions on the go.”
Before the conference, industry officials met with Army leaders to discuss the service’s mission requirements for unmanned aviation and how industry can best meet those needs.
Tim Owings, deputy project manager for Army unmanned air systems, said his office is especially interested in vertical lift and cargo resupply technologies, as well as lighter munitions and communications devices that link UAVs and operators.
The enthusiasm for UAVs is not going to fade any time soon, several officials insisted. Aviation Branch Chief Maj. Gen. James O. Barclay III discussed details of a major restructuring of Army combat aviation units. The plan is to redesign aviation formations during the next three to five years in order to incorporate unmanned aircraft in the standard makeup.
“We’re integrating UAS into all of our formations downrange,” Chiarelli said. “But I think the biggest thing to come out of this discussion is an opportunity to sit back and think about this idea of the full-spectrum combat aviation brigade — the ability to go ahead and integrate unmanned platforms along with manned platforms. That’s the direction the Army’s going.”
In the long-term, which the roadmap defines as 2026 to 2036, the major concerns for unmanned aviation will be “system survivability, footprint, autonomy, commonality, and interoperability.” The mission that is most dependent on a pilot — medical evacuation — will remain mostly manned but will “start to transition to unmanned capabilities late in the far-term,” according to the roadmap.
Aviation officials also said they would have to acquire technologies and develop strategies for defeating hostile UAVs. Low, slow, small aircraft pose a challenge, they said, because they’re difficult to detect.
Carlile suggested that, in the long term, developers might create “cognitive algorithms” that would allow unmanned vehicles to alter their behaviors based on prior experiences. Essentially, the machines would learn.
Col. Thomas H. Bryant, commander of the Army’s applied technology directorate, said that more research is needed to explore the potential of UAVs. “We’ve got to make a leap,” he said. “We can’t keep incrementally improving the fleet.”
Chiarelli said the roadmap was not intended to endorse programs or forecast budgets but rather to offer notional concepts of how unmanned systems will fit into formations in the future. “There have been many technologies [that have been] introduced during this eight-and-a-half years of war. However, I don’t think any has made a greater impact than UAS,” Chiarelli said. “It’s always important when you have a game changer like this that you step back, take some time to think about it and lay out your future. That’s what we’ve tried to do in this very first UAS roadmap.”