OSD: No New Unmanned Aircraft Programs on the Horizon

12/15/2011
By Stew Magnuson
For the past decade, unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturers have enjoyed boom times. Thousands of UAVs — big and small — were rushed into the field to meet the insatiable demand for overhead intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
Those days are over, said Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of the unmanned warfare directorate at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
 
“I do think the preponderance of what we see in the near future is improvements to current capabilities rather than a whole lot of new programs,” he said Dec. 15 at an Army Aviation Association of America conference in Arlington, Va.
 
“Let’s take what we have today and make it as good as it can be,” he said.
 
The drumbeat out of the office of the secretary of defense has been “make it cost-effective.” Weatherington repeated a mantra that OSD officials have been telling the services and industry for months. New systems must be designed for affordability from the ground up. Not only should the upfront costs be taken into account, but the price of manpower, logistics and maintainability need to be considered as well.
 
“We need to make sure that we work hard in getting that right upfront because the impacts long term can be very large,” he said.
 
The problem for UAVs is that they were fielded rapidly with little regard for their logistical tail. For example, Air Force officials complained at the Milcom conference in Baltimore recently that unpiloted aircraft proliferated with little regard for how much radio spectrum they use up. The Air Force must purchase bandwidth needed to pipe live streaming video from war zones back to bases in the United States. That comes from the spot commercial satellite communications market, and isn’t cheap.
 
However, with no big UAV programs on the horizon, the “design for affordability” mantra is, for the time being, a moot point.
 
“The challenge is as we go forward, and the threat continues to adapt, is … how do we modify these systems to get the most efficient capability out of them at the least investment?” Weatherington asked.
 
The operation of ground systems that keep track of the aircraft is one of the “low-hanging fruit” where the services can look for savings, he said.
 
There are also opportunities for industry to help the military with one of its biggest problems: integrating its UAVs into U.S. airspace. The military must work with the Federal Aviation Administration to fly aircraft for training purposes in national airspace as units return to the United States. Military unmanned aircraft must be able to “sense and avoid” other aircraft or obstacles. The FAA wants to be sure that UAVs are safe.
 
The Army is investing in ground-based technologies that can track UAVs as they fly. The Navy and Air Force are taking the lead on sense-and-avoid systems that are placed aboard aircraft.
 
There are other possibilities for manufacturers. Col. Robert Sova, Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager for unmanned aerial systems, said his organization is completing a study on requirements for micro-UAVs. These are generally defined as aircraft that can be carried by an infantryman.
 
The Army is also looking at the potential use of vertical take-off and landing unmanned aerial vehicles. In response to urgent requests from battlefield commanders, it is sending unmanned helicopters to Afghanistan this summer.
However, Army aviation officials in the past have expressed concerns about large VTOLs for just the reasons Weatherington mentioned: rotary-wing aircraft are generally more expensive to fly and maintain than fixed-wing aircraft.
 
Left unsaid at the conference was the potential market for stealthy spy UAVs such as the one that was apparently lost in Iranian territory recently. One of the knocks against unpiloted aircraft that were rapidly fielded over the last 10 years has been survivability. They are easy for any nation with even antiquated air-defense systems to shoot down. They were free to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that will not always be the case.
 
Weatherington was asked point blank if he could tell the audience what happened to the UAV in Iran and what was lost.
 
"No, I can’t,” he replied.

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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