Army Combat Aviation Brigades Will Have More Drones
The first has already occurred with the fielding of F Company, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division last month. It is the first unit thus far to have full ownership of its own UAV fleet — in this case MQ-1C Grey Eagles.
“The difference is there already a number of MQ-1s … but this is the first time we’re going to have a fielded unit with 12 Grey Eagles in a combat aviation brigade, that are owned by the division,” Webb said at the Army Aviation Association’s annual symposium. “This is a big deal.”
That deployment will be a case study of how to expand unmanned aviation throughout the Army. Webb and other Army leaders who work with UAS integration are hoping to learn some specific lessons from the unit’s time in Afghanistan.
“The division commander is going to decide on the battlefield how it’s going to be done,” Webb said. “We’re anxious to see how that turns out.”
Leaders also hope to work out how information captured by a dedicated fleet of UAVs will be used, who will look at it and how and where it will be distributed. Called PED, which stands for processing, exploitation and dissemination, it’s a challenge other branches have struggled with, given the huge amounts of data and video a single UAV can gather per flight.
“That can be an exhausting task, especially when you have a capability like Grey Eagle that can stay airborne for a long duration,” Webb said.
Later in 2012, the 101st CAB will deploy with two companies equipped with Shadow drones — the second of Webb’s quantum leaps on the road to full integration of UAVs.
“Here we are curious to see all the benefits of manned-unmanned teaming,” said Lt. Col. Scott Anderson, project manager for unmanned aerial systems command. “What are the metrics that we’re going to use to measure the effectiveness of a reconnaissance squadron when they have their own shadows embedded with them? How effective are the manned systems going to be because they’re able to use their own assets.”
Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopters and the Apache Block III are being teamed with Shadows. “It’s a paradigm shift for the Shadow,” a fleet which has flown 750,000 hours, 92 percent of which was in combat, Anderson said.
“Now it’s not just an Army asset, it becomes an aviation asset,” he said.
Teaming presents technological issues, like who will controls the UAVs and how the information is shared with manned aircraft pilots. Kiowa-Shadow teaming is currently at level two of five levels of interoperability, said Steven Reid, senior vice president and general manager for unmanned aircraft systems at AAI Textron Systems.
A UAV is considered level one if it transmits information to an operator, who in turn relays the information to the pilot of a manned aircraft. Level five gives full control of the UAV’s flight and payload to a manned aircraft crew member, including takeoff and landing. As it stands, Shadows can beam live video and targeting information directly into the cockpit of an OH-58F Kiowa.
The Shadow, built by AAI, has had trouble flying at high altitudes and hot temperatures in Afghanistan. Conditions have caused internal engine failures, leading the Army to launch an engine replacement program. Fourteen companies responded to a request for information for a replacement engine, a number which Anderson said was encouraging.
Next year, manned-unmanned teaming within Army aviation should make another leap forward with the fielding of the tactical common data link. The system is a single control panel that is common to all of the Army’s UAVs. A single pilot, or “universal operator,” once trained on the TCDL, will be able to interchangeably fly a Shadow, Grey Eagle, Hunter or Raven drone, Anderson said.
Operational tests of that system is scheduled for spring 2013, with fielding to follow shortly thereafter, he said.
“It will expand our ability to do manned-unmanned teaming,” Anderson said of the technology.