New Army Aviation Brigade Combines Manned and Unmanned Aircraft
Officials at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual forum this week described this first-ever full-spectrum combat aviation brigade as an example of the increasing focus the Army has put on teaming drones and piloted aircraft. The goal, they said, is to form a cohesive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance unit that collects and disseminates critical battlefield information.
Army aviators have flown about 4.5 million combat hours since February 2003, many of which involved the use of unmanned aircraft systems. The Army is now officially bringing manned and remotely piloted aircraft and their operators under the same command.
The new brigade will feature an entire company of Grey Eagle unmanned aircraft, which is the largest one the Army operates. It will add Shadow drone platoons to a Kiowa scout helicopter squadron. The teaming arrangement will be tested in a live exercise scheduled for September at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The “manned unmanned systems integration capability” (MUSIC) will seek to demonstrate how unmanned aircraft support soldiers on the ground.
The Army wants better intelligence for ground troops, said Col. Gregory B. Gonzalez, project manager for unmanned aircraft systems at the Army’s program executive office aviation. “Information about the enemy has been out there … but on separate platforms,” he said. “What we’re going to show is that we’ve been able to connect all of those platforms — the soldier in the cockpit flying his aircraft, the ground control station operator on the ground, soldiers who have our user terminals. They can all access that information that before on the battlefield each platform had individually but not collectively.”
In the September exercise, soldiers will attempt to operate Grey Eagle, Shadow and Hunter unmanned aircraft from the same ground station. They also will be using handheld video terminals to control drones’ sensor payloads, as well as receive video feeds from manned helicopters and smaller unmanned platforms such as Ravens and Pumas. The Army also will be flying a Grey Eagle with a new sensor apparatus called TRICLOPS, which was designed to track multiple targets to allow different users to control the sensors separately. Army officials said they hope to have an Apache Block III prototype on hand to display its ability to receive video feeds from the drones as well as control their sensors.
“The purpose is to overwhelm the enemy and provide a seamless type of environment where each of the members on the battlefield has access to that information and those targets,” Gonzalez said. In the exercise, soldiers also will be experimenting with wide-area surveillance technologies and smartphones. A MUSIC demonstration originally had been planned for the September event, but recently was scrapped because parts of the system are not yet ready.
The Army has been developing surveillance technologies that would allow users to view a much larger swath of territory, albeit in low-resolution images. One would be able to make out vehicles and roads but would not be able to pinpoint, for example, a gun in someone’s hand. However, if a user saw something of interest in a section of this wide image, he could zoom in, and shift to a high-fidelity video feed.
This technology, along with smartphones, will have their place in future MUSIC experiments, said Tim Owings, deputy project manager for Army UAS. Owings said that his team is looking at using local 3G and 4G networks to transfer data from aircraft to smart phones. There are some security and encryption issues officials must work through before the phones can be used in such a demonstration, he said. September’s MUSIC demo will be the first of many, Gonzalez said. Officials plan to hold similar experiments every other year.