Drone Operators Ask Industry For ‘Open’ Systems

The ground-based equipment that is used to fly unmanned combat aircraft is not adequate to handle the demanding missions of current conflicts, operators say.

Of most concern is the design and configuration of the control stations where pilots fly surveillance drones over combat zones thousands of miles away. Operators have said that the workstation displays do not provide sufficient views of their surroundings, and that the aircraft-control system does not allow them to fly more than one aircraft at a time.

Companies are reacting to these complaints with redesigned control stations that place operators in a cockpit-like environment. The new systems also are attempting to improve interoperability by conforming to open standards that facilitate communications with different types of aircraft. While progress is being made, there are still some hurdles. 

One of the obstacles is that the manufacturers of unmanned aircraft and the makers of the ground equipment do not necessarily work together.

“We, the ground system providers, are being held hostage by the platform providers,” says Mark Bigham, director of business development at Raytheon Tactical Intelligence Systems. “We are open and willing to be compliant and fly whatever the military wants us to fly.”

Drone manufacturers have been reluctant to share their proprietary communications datalink formats with other companies. They produce ground stations that control only their specific aircraft, which means that the services often have to buy the complete package. That has proven cumbersome and inefficient because the equipment is not compatible with aircraft made by other manufacturers.

In an effort to encourage less “stove-piping,” Congress has mandated that all unmanned aircraft weighing more than 45 pounds must transition to a tactical common datalink that will enable them to interoperate with various ground technologies.

There also is a movement to ensure that ground stations can communicate with multiple aircraft. War commanders want to be able to fly numerous drones from a single ground station, and in the Army’s case, operators want to control different makes and models of aircraft as well.

“Our customers are forcing us to open standards,” says Tom Bachman, divisional vice president for AAI Corp.’s One System programs.

AAI Corp., which manufacturers the Shadow and Hunter unmanned systems, modified its ground control station software to comply with a NATO standard agreement for interoperability between drones that is known as STANAG 4586.

Bachman says the STANAG architecture, which separates an aircraft’s specific software from the common user interface, makes it easier to add new aircraft systems to the “One System” ground control station. Moving to that architecture has enabled the technology to control seven different types of unmanned aircraft.

The common user interface is analogous to Windows in the computer industry, he says. The aircraft specific software is similar to a printer driver that communicates with a certain type of printer. If the printer runs out of ink, its driver puts a message indicator on the screen. The same holds true for an unmanned system communicating through the ground control station via a vehicle-specific module.

The station recently completed several takeoff and landing tests of the Sky Warrior, the Army’s newest drone that is based on the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator. That accomplishment demonstrates that the ground station can control an aircraft made by another manufacturer, Bachman says.

The Army plans to field five One System ground control stations to 11 Sky Warrior companies. Sky Warrior deploys to the Middle East later this year.

Air Force contractors also have made the workstation design a priority. General Atomics re-engineered its current ground control station for the Predator unmanned aircraft to improve the human-machine interface.

“This new advanced cockpit ground control system is a quantum leap in ground control station capabilities for [unmanned aerial vehicles],” says Chris Ames, director of business development at General Atomics. The system features touch-screen technologies that call up graphics on three screens with a single press of a finger. That design is a departure from the current configuration that requires an operator to navigate through multiple menus with a keyboard.   

“Rather than having to use a keyboard and keystrokes to call up multi-layered tableaux, here the screens are intuitive. You touch once and it brings up the relevant screen with graphical designs that make it intuitively obvious on what’s going on,” says Ames.

The system also expands the operators’ field of view to 120 degrees from 30 degrees with a panoramic synthetic view generated by software from a military mapping server. “It puts you in the aircraft as never before,” says Ames. The scenery is depicted in color and additional information, such as restricted airspace and adversary threats, are layered over it. “It gives you, on one display, a fused current operational picture that frankly beats anything you’d get if you were sitting in a normal fighter aircraft,” he says. “On top of that, it also overlays the standardized heads-up display that’s used in the Air Force.”

A prototype is proceeding through a series of flight tests, says Maj. Matt Martin, chief of the Predator and Reaper operations branch at Air Combat Command’s A-3 staff.

Raytheon Corp. also has modified its ground control stations. The company’s “common ground control system” was built with commercial computers and visual systems laid out in a cockpit-like configuration. Three wide-screen displays give pilots and sensor operators a 120-degree view of the battlefield. The company recently made an unsolicited bid to the Air Force.

General Atomics and Raytheon officials say that their ground control technologies also are STANAG 4586-compliant and can operate multiple aircraft.

The military’s need to fly multiple aircraft from a single control station may drive industry to redesign the cockpit displays yet again. “The thing that will make these systems more useful is how to best present the data that’s being collected by the aircraft,” says Bachman.

Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have an insatiable appetite for the full-motion video, imagery and data that unmanned aircraft are providing. But military commanders are still struggling with how best to manage and exploit the torrent of information that is streamed from them.

The Air Force is rushing to train analysts to pore over UAV feeds and create so-called “actionable intelligence” that commanders can use to locate fleeting targets.
Some military organizations increasingly are relying on automated “sensor fusion” software to create intelligence products.

Not only are there more unmanned systems in the air but they also are being outfitted with larger sensors, which means that operators are “inundated by pixels,” says John Bradburn, senior business development director at Sarnoff Corp. Mission commanders have limited personnel at ground stations to analyze data, which is increasing the demand for automated tools, he says. Sarnoff developed a three-dimensional visualization technology called TerraSight that takes full-motion video from drones and combines it with blue-force tracking data and other metadata to create a digital map of the battlefield where commanders can easily pinpoint the location of targets.

TerraSight has been deployed with 12 UAVs in Middle East operations, Bradburn says.

“We can track moving targets, generate coordinates and identify them in real time,” he says.

Up to eight simultaneous video streams can be fused and displayed over a 3-D map. “In a complex scenario with an operator looking at multiple screens, we condensed that into a single common operational picture,” Bradburn says.

The Joint Staff and U.S. Strategic Command have directed a study to determine precisely the combatant commanders’ full-motion video needs. The results are expected early this year.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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