Army Planning New Purchases of Unmanned Aircraft
While the Armyowns and operates hundreds of fixed-wing unmanned air vehicles, rotary-wing UAVs have been a tough sell. After many years of trial and error, the Army now has decided that it does need a new unmanned helicopter, officials said May 11.
Unlike previous efforts that focused on small, low-endurance vertical-lift aircraft, this time the Army will be seeking a larger, more sophisticated drone that can fly unrefueled for at least 12 to 24 hours, and carry multiple sensor packages.
There has been widespread speculation recently that the Army was walking away from unmanned helicopters because of their cost and maintenance challenges. But Army officials insist that the service is, indeed, planning to acquire vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) unmanned air vehicles.
“We are embarking on a VTOL program,” Tim Owings, Army deputy project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
Just last month, officials at theArmy’s annual aviation convention in Nashville had indicated that it was almost a certainty that the Army would forgo plans to buy a new vertical-lift drone, because of budget constraints and concerns about maintenance costs.
Owens said that after further deliberations, Army leaders decided to change the scope of the program. “There is now an appreciation of what the real requirements should have been,” he said. Earlier efforts had failed to address the most significant feature sought in a UAV: high endurance. “Fielding something that flies only three to six hours really doesn’t provide what we’re looking for.”
The first step will be to test the performance of an existing unmanned helicopter, the A-160 Hummingbird, that is already in service with U.S. special operations forces. The aircraft is equipped with an advanced spy sensor known as “autonomous real-time ground ubiquitous surveillance-Imaging system.”
The next phase would come next year, when the Army will solicit industry bids and launch a competition, possibly in 2013, with the intent of selecting two aircraft. The two competitors will help the Army gauge the state of the technology and fine-tune the specifications for the aircraft it wants to ultimately buy. Already the Army has decided it needs this aircraft to operate at altitudes of up to 6,000 feet, and in high temperatures of up to 95 degrees. The drone would be initially used for surveillance but also would have to jump into other missions, such as cargo delivery, if needed, Owings said. Down the road, he said, the Army may consider adding niche sensors and weapons, such as synthetic aperture radar imaging, laser dazzlers and other non-lethal devices.
One reason why the VTOL UAV program has endured so many fits and starts is that the Army doesn’t have proper visibility into the current state of technology, Owings said. “We already know what is available in the fixed-wing industrial base. On the VTOL side, we don’t.”
In the near future, the main event for Army aviation will be a September exercise at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, where conventional helicopters and UAVs will intermingle. The “manned unmanned systems integration capability,” or Music, will seek to prove that unmanned aircraft can both supplant and complement combat helicopters. Manned, unmanned aircraft and units on the ground will all be part of a single network, so pilots in the cockpit, UAV operators in ground stations, and troops in combat can all see the same picture of the battlefield. This is significant, Owings said, because pilots and ground troops will have access to visual imagery of intended targets instead of having to describe them via radio voice communications. “This puts everyone on the same cable channel,” Owings said. “We are all looking at the same TV show at the same time.”
In the September exercise, soldiers will operate Grey Eagle, Shadow and Hunter unmanned aircraft from the same ground station. Ground units will have handheld video terminals to control drones’ sensor payloads, and will 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 wide-area surveillance sensor package called TRICLOPS, which was designed to track multiple targets to allow different users to control the sensors separately.
Another possible innovation planned for the UAV fleet is the use of 3G and 4G wireless communications so imagery collected by aircraft can be uploaded by ground troops on smartphones or tablet computers. “We are playing with the idea of cell towers in the air,” Owings said. “The 3G or 4G broadcast elements allow you to hit disadvantaged users” who typically would not have access to visual data. This effort, however, is still in its infancy, as the Army has not yet figured out how to encrypt data and how to reconcile the military’s stringent security policies with the openness of commercial information systems. Owings said several companies, including Raytheon, Sierra Nevada Corp., AAI and L-3 Communications, are working on airborne cellular nodes for manned and unmanned aircraft.
Lt. Col. Kirk McCauley, Army assistant project director for armed scout helicopters, said commercial technology usually cannot survive in harsh combat environments. “If a system can’t function in sand, dust or high temperatures,” it creates too many risks for the operators, he said. “We continue to experience that with the commercial market,” he said. “It’s frustrating for some people.” When it comes to adapting off-the-shelf technology for combat use, he said, the “devil is in the details.”
The Army’s current emphasis on mixing manned and unmanned aircraft in joint formations is just the beginning of what could be greater use of UAVs — in some cases as replacement for helicopters and in others as eyes and ears for pilots in cockpits.
The demand for Army aviation in war zones has only grown, even after the Iraq drawdown, Owings said. “In Afghanistan, flight hours are going through the roof,” he said. Rather than buy new aircraft, the Army plans to rely more heavily on automation to make more efficient use of existing systems, he said.
McCauley said current Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter squadrons already have welcome the addition of UAVs, especially as aging Kiowas are retired from service. “We are reducing the number of manned helicopters and augmenting with UAS,” he said. Since the termination of the Comanche scout helicopter in 2004, the Army has struggled to figure out how to go about modernizing the Kiowa Warrior fleet. A fierce debate has been under way on whether UAVs alone could serve as scouts. “We do not believe that is true,” McCauley said. “Maybe in a generation or two.”
Owings said the transition from manned to unmanned already is happening, although “every study has shown that you cant’ take the pilot out of the cockpit for every mission.”