Troops can’t seem to get enough of the aerial reconnaissance gathered by manned and unmanned aircraft, which has proven invaluable to them in recent conflicts.
Drones are now being paired with manned helicopters, allowing one aircraft to do the work of two or more while putting fewer pilots in harm’s way. Manned-unmanned configurations have become popular in theater, though uniformed and industry officials believe the technology hasn’t reached its full potential.
The technology currently allows just one unmanned aerial vehicle to team with one manned aircraft. Industry and military officials want to push the concept further and they are pouring millions of dollars into these efforts.
“We see manned-unmanned teaming becoming even more important in the future,” said Mike Miller, director of military business development for Bell Helicopter. “It gives you the ability to cover a greater area with unmanned systems and then to respond with a manned system when needed.”
AAI Corp. and Bell Helicopter — both subsidiaries of Textron Systems — announced in December the official opening of two Huntsville, Ala., laboratories that will develop teaming technologies and help the military devise tactics for their use.
The Integration and Collaboration Laboratory will help the Army and other services evaluate unmanned platforms and the technologies for controlling them from the ground and from the cockpit of manned aircraft.
The Manned/Unmanned Operations Capability Development Laboratory will focus on the development of tactics. Using a Kiowa Warrior simulator linked to unmanned aircraft, it will allow for the evaluation of teaming operations without the need for manned flights.
Currently, two combat aviation brigades are overseas flying OH-58 Kiowa Warriors teamed with Shadow drones. The labs were designed to take after-action reports from pilots in those units and use the information to drive its experimentation with pairing manned and unmanned aircraft, said Peter Blocker, AAI’s vice president of operations at the Huntsville facilities.
“Coming out of [Afghanistan], there will be lots of lessons learned about how these should be used,” he said. “There will be pieces of technology that can be added to both platforms.”
The labs are situated adjacent to Ft. Rucker, home of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence. That proximity to Army pilots and aviation leaders will be helpful, said Bill Irby, senior vice president and general manager of AAI unmanned aircraft systems.
The labs’ use of simulators will allow for the development of tactics and technologies at a fraction of the cost of experimenting with real aircraft, Irby said.
Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer for Army aviation, told National Defense that manned-unmanned teaming will be “critical” to the branch’s future.
“I am not one of those zealots who says ‘We’ve got manned-unmanned teaming, so we don’t need a man in the loop anymore, that we can do it all with UAVs,’” Crosby said at an Army Aviation Association of America forum in Arlington, Va. “There are some old dogs who say we’re never going to get rid of manned reconnaissance. Today I will tell you that we can’t get rid of manned reconnaissance.”
Officials at companies studying manned-unmanned teaming agree with Crosby, but are interested in pushing the technology further. If a single helicopter can control and receive information from a single UAV, engineers want to know how to team two, three or more unmanned platforms with a single manned aircraft.
“One of the ideas this lab can look at, because we have all the assets, is two or three aircraft, a mix of Gray Eagle, Shadow, Hunter — whatever — with a helicopter,” Blocker said.
The problem then becomes how to integrate information from several intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance platforms into a cockpit already packed with gauges, displays and instruments.
“The answer may eventually be we’ve done so much in the cockpit, that we need to push autonomy to the unmanned aircraft,” Blocker said. “I do believe that autonomy is going to have to be part of the answer for the future. This lab will be set up to help look at that.”
Bell engineers are still moving up the ladder of interoperability toward level-four control of UAVs from a Kiowa cockpit. The most technologically advanced version of the Apache, the Block III or AH-64E, provides the ability to do level-four control. This is defined as a pilot in the cockpit of a Block III controlling both a UAV and its sensors receiving live video directly from the unmanned aircraft.
Most UAVs operate at level-one integration where the information they gather is interpreted by a remote operator. Some operate at level two, where the drone’s video feed is directly linked to the flat-panel display of a manned aircraft. At level three, pilots or co-pilots of manned aircraft take control of the drone’s sensors.
Two battalions of 24 aircraft each of teamed Apaches and Gray Eagles were first sent to combat in 2009. They were linked by a Boeing/Lockheed-developed technology called the “video from unmanned aerial systems for interoperability teaming system” — VUIT-II for short. But the system only beams video from the unmanned platform into the Apache cockpit. Control of the UAV and its sensor payload still was in the hands of a remote pilot.
“VUIT-II was developed as a quick reaction program by Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control and successfully operated in combat serving as the prototype systems that helped the Army develop the initial doctrine and tactics for manned and unmanned teaming,” Robert Gunning, vice president of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, wrote in an email. The system performed so well that after its initial tour, the aircraft teams were redeployed to Afghanistan.
The Bell lab will take lessons learned from that battlefield success as it progresses toward more sophisticated and complex teaming structures.
“As we go to level-three and level-four control, this lab will give us the capability to test out controllers and other human factors issues … that will come into play when you try to control the sensors on the Shadow or the Shadow itself,” said Miller.
UAVs are capable of providing situational awareness to helicopter pilots, troops on the ground and commanders at a remote control station. But programmers haven’t figured out how to give UAVs what Crosby called “situational curiosity.”
“Things are going to evolve and change, but my preaching to everybody is balance,” Crosby said. “We can ill afford to put a soldier in a situation where he doesn’t have the decision-making tools that he needs because we’re trying to jump on a new technology. We need to test it, learn it, be trained on it. I’m a big believer in technology, but let’s not leap to it."