Navy 'Reinvesting' Billions of Dollars in Unmanned Systems
SAN DIEGO — The Navy was the first of the armed services to fly an unmanned aircraft. But in the decades since the maiden flight of a drone anti-submarine helicopter in 1960, it's been the Air Force and the Army that have taken the lead in acquiring and deploying unmanned aircraft.
The Navy this decade will begin to close the gap by investing more money in robotics and by accelerating the development of a carrier-based combat UAV, said officials at West 2011, an annual defense industry conference hosted by AFCEA and the U.S. Naval Institute.
“Things are moving out quickly,” said Dave Weddel, assistant deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, during a panel discussion. The funds to pay for new unmanned technologies are being reallocated from other programs within the Navy’s budget — part of the "efficiencies" drill mandated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Navy Undersecretary Robert Work said that the department is planning to add $800 million to the budget for the MQ-8B Fire Scout vertical take-off and landing unmanned aircraft program. That will increase the total number of VTUAV robotic systems to 60 aircraft from 22. There are five Fire Scouts deployed: two aboard the USS Halyburton (FFG-40), and three en route to Afghanistan as part of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance task force, said Weddel.
The Navy also is investing $1 billion in the medium-range UAS, a vertical launch unmanned system scheduled to enter service in 2019. It is seen as a replacement or upgrade for the Fire Scout. The aircraft will have greater lift capability and will have a range of 300 miles, said Weddel.
An unmanned intelligence-collection aircraft that would fly off carrier decks also is being pursued. The Navy last year added $2 billion to the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or U-CLASS, program. Several companies, including Boeing, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, have developed systems that could ultimately compete for a contract. The Navy has solicited preliminary information from industry. In this year’s budget, the service is adding $500 million to the program to continue development of the technology.
The UCLASS is based on an earlier program known as unmanned combat aircraft system, which was a joint effort with the Air Force until that service dropped out suddenly in 2006. The Navy carried on with Northrop Grumman’s X-47B demonstrator aircraft, which recently completed low- and medium-speed taxi tests in California. High speed taxi tests are scheduled for next year.
It is still not clear if and when the Navy will deploy drones aboard aircraft carriers. Aviators have in the past opposed having unmanned aircraft as part of carrier air wings because ofsafety and reliability concerns. But officials are confident that the technology is moving forward. "The capability is not far away,” said Weddel. The first flight of the UCAS aircraft is scheduled for next month. Carrier-based tests could happen in 2012 or 2013. Initial operating capability is scheduled for 2018, said Weddel. “It’s a big leap in technology with lots of requirements,” he said.
The future for unmanned aircraft systems in the Navy is exciting, said Weddel. Every cruiser, destroyer, littoral combat ship and carrier will have a UAS capability over time, Work said.
A major concern, however, is how sailors will cope with the huge loads of data that unmanned systems collect. J. Terry Simpson, principal deputy for intelligence in the program executive office for command, control, communication, computers and intelligence, said that one hour of full motion video from a wide area optical surveillance sensor produces 1 terabyte of data. He noted that it is 100 times more expensive to move data on radio frequency than it is to transmit via fiber.
“We have to be careful -- the amount of data being generated will begin to saturate our programs,” said Weddel. “There is much to do in infrastructure, architecture and tactics, techniques and procedures to figure out where and how it will be processed,” whether in theater, aboard ships, in maritime operation centers or in the United States. The other challenge is how the service will ultimately distribute that data to users aboard ships or on the ground.
Another technology priority are unmanned undersea vehicles. So far, systems have been unable to deliver enough power and endurance. The goal is, by 2017, to have a UUV deploy for up to 70 days without recovery. “We are working with the Office of Naval Research to get there,” said Weddel. The plan is to launch a new program for a large diameter UUV. One of the more promising efforts now is a project called the littoral battle-space sensing glider, which is being tested and acquired by the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, said Weddel. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command is purchasing up to 150 of the small gliders, which are capable of spending six months at sea, unattended. They will be deployed aboard naval research ships. The systems were used extensively in the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill crisis. “They are leading the way in that area,” Weddel said.