ROBOTICS

Teaming Pilots With Drones Hampered By Technology

7/1/2012
By Dan Parsons


The Army recently found that the most cost effective solution to replace its scout helicopters was a mix of traditional rotary wing platforms and unmanned aerial vehicles flying alongside to cover more ground in a single mission.

While not an official procurement decision, the analysis of alternatives for a new armed aerial scout provides a snapshot into a future where military officials plan to team unmanned systems with manned vehicles on land, at sea and in the air.

“I had no doubt in my mind that was going to be one of the outcomes,” Mike Miller, director of business development for Bell Helicopter, told National Defense at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual expo in Nashville. “The ability to team with unmanned systems was most certainly going to be one of the Army’s requirements. Everyone is wanting more manned-unmanned teaming because it is such a force multiplier.”

Leaders throughout the Defense Department see the same potential in teaming drones with other platforms. For example, they could pair swarms of UAVs with the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter once it comes online, or with helicopters aboard the Littoral Combat Ship. Unmanned mine hunters could operate alongside future attack submarines.

Progress is being made in that direction with the melding of existing manned and unmanned platforms to accomplish specific missions.

But there are significant technological and logistical obstacles that must be overcome before the grand vision of seamless manned-unmanned teaming is a reality. Those include figuring out how man and machine will interact and in what form information will be delivered to pilots.

There is also a need to reduce the number of personnel flying a drone. Streamlining and simplifying the data pipeline between a UAV and the pilot of a manned aircraft is also instrumental to more integrated teaming, said Sean Varah, CEO of Burlingame, Calif.-based MotionDSP Inc.

“There are a whole lot of people involved in this chain,” Varah, whose company makes video-stabilization and enhancement software, said in an interview. “I think at last count, for every Predator mission, there were 170 people involved … and the Air Force does 50 every day. We’ve got to reduce the workload. We’ve got to remove some folks from that chain.”

In a typical ground operation there may be dozens of personnel involved in the operation of aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, including manned and unmanned aircraft supporting troops on the ground. There might be both a manned surveillance aircraft and one or more UAVs.

Inside the manned aircraft, there would be a pilot, a camera operator and a video analyst. There would be that many personnel actively operating and receiving data from the UAV as well. Both platforms would be potentially beaming intelligence and surveillance information back to troops and pilots that were involved in the operation.

At least some of the information burden can be removed by using a $300 processor that was designed for videogame consoles, Varah said. Real-time video analytics, as Varah calls the process, allows even small, non-stabilized cameras to feed clarified video directly to a console — whether a handheld tablet or a helicopter cockpit display.

“We designed our software to fix YouTube videos,” Varah said. “Now we can do visual moving target indication by highlighting different types of motion. We can help the analyst with situational awareness. There’s none of this going on at all right now. Seeing better saves lives.”

Once the video is processed, it still has to be made available to the pilot of a manned aircraft in some form. But the glut of information that even one unmanned platform can gather has to be streamlined and prioritized for it to be useful to a pilot in the sky.

Helicopter and jet pilots are already inundated with information from sensors on their own aircraft and radio communications, not to mention enemy fire. Introducing another source of information or controls for another platform into the cockpit could be distracting and potentially disastrous, said Steve Reid, senior vice president and general manager of unmanned aircraft systems for AAI Corp.

“A pilot and even the co-pilot have a lot of information to process already,” Reid said. “So we’re doing a lot of studies on how best to integrate the cockpit.”

AAI, in partnership with Bell Helicopter, is researching manned-unmanned teaming. Bell’s OH-58 Kiowa Warriors are the first military aircraft being teamed and deployed with UAVs.

The companies, both owned by Textron Systems, are also in the process of building a laboratory in Huntsville, Ala., that is dedicated to studying the operational feasibility of teaming manned with unmanned aircraft.

UAVs currently operate at “level one” integration where the information they gather is interpreted by a remote operator, then communicated to the pilot of a manned aircraft or to troops on the ground. Some operate at “level two,” where the drone’s video feed is directly linked to the flat-panel display of a manned aircraft.

As technology progresses to level three, pilots or co-pilots of manned aircraft will take control of the drone’s sensors. At level four, aircraft pilots will control the drone’s flight and firing mechanism. Ultimately, with level-five teaming, manned aircraft crews will take complete control of their partner drones to include takeoff, landing and flight and fire control.

“We’re still trying to work out what the human interface will be like in the cockpit,” Reid said. “Will it be a joystick? Will it be controlled some other way? We don’t know yet and we’re trying to figure it out.”

Another, more controversial component to teaming UAVs with manned vehicles is the level of autonomy those unmanned systems are granted. To alleviate human pilots from having to control UAV flights at teaming levels four and five, the unmanned platforms will have to accomplish some tasks on their own.

Target recognition is a major capability that is not yet mature, said Varah. While software can recognize different sorts of motion, it cannot differentiate between enemy and civilian, he said.

“We call that ‘slideware,’” he said. “A lot of companies say their systems can pick out the enemy, but what looks good on a PowerPoint slide, doesn’t always work in reality.”

For that reason, all armed drones must have a human “in the loop” in order to engage an enemy.

Still, both military officials and industry engineers are giving drones greater autonomy in flight, a capability that will eventually allow pilots of manned aircraft to give them broad instructions without having to fly them in a traditional sense.

Many of the drones operating in war zones already have some level of autonomy. Putting them on autopilot relieves the monotony of an operator staring at a console, watching video broadcast by an aircraft that can stay aloft for hours at a time.

Some drones can already fly and spy on their own without a pilot directly supervising. Others simply take off and land on their own, then hand over control to a ground-based operator while in flight.

The Navy’s Fire Scout, a rotary wing UAV that is built by Northrop Grumman, is tethered to its host ship by an electronic link that allows it to land on a deck. The experimental fleet is currently grounded because of two recent mishaps, one caused by a malfunction of its autonomous landing system.

Once the kinks are worked out, Navy leaders hope to team Fire Scouts with MH-60 Blackhawks aboard the new Littoral Combat Ship. Both the Lockheed Martin-built LCS-1 mono-hull and the Austal Inc.-built aluminum-hulled trimaran will be equipped with a mix of Fire Scouts and Blackhawks.

The Army is fielding manned and unmanned aviation platforms in the same units. Army scout helicopter squadrons are being paired with General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones to aid in target acquisition and reconnaissance missions.

Company F, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division has deployed as the first unit thus far to have full ownership of its own UAV fleet — in this case 12 Gray Eagles.

Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopters and the Apache Block III are being teamed with Shadows. A fleet that has flown 750,000 hours, 92 percent of which was in combat, the Shadow can beam live video and targeting information directly into the cockpit of either helicopter.

Later this year, the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade will deploy with two companies equipped with Shadow drones — another of what Col. Grant Webb, capability manager for unmanned aerial systems at Army Training and Doctrine Command, called “quantum leaps” in the progression of manned-unmanned teaming.

“This is a big deal,” Webb said at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual symposium. “With command and control and other aspects, there are a lot of lessons that will be learned. Processing, exploitation and dissemination, for instance … that can be an exhausting task. We’re working on that. We’re working on leader education. We expect demand [for manned-unmanned teaming] to rise.”

The deployment marks a major transition of UAVs from a primarily ground asset to a dedicated aviation asset in support of ground troops.

“We are curious to see all the benefits of manned-unmanned teaming,” Lt. Col. Scott Anderson, project manager for unmanned aerial systems command, said at the conference. “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.”

While teamed Kiowas and Shadows conduct operations, other work will be done by the AAI-Bell lab that is scheduled to open this year.

This manned-unmanned teaming lab will serve as a research-and-development facility to develop and test technologies that could make the vision of seamlessly teamed manned and unmanned aircraft a reality.

The new lab will be connected to the existing Shadow Tactical UAS system integration center in Huntsville, which is being expanded to house a Kiowa Warrior OH-58D simulation facility.

The combined laboratory will enable accelerated technology insertion to ensure aviation forces are equipped and trained with the most current capabilities and advantages, according to a statement from the companies. The lab will be dedicated to studying information dissemination, which will enable multiple levels of UAS interoperability, evaluation of emerging technologies in an operational environment, and rapid fielding of new technologies. Simulation will allow pilots to test levels of teaming and train with different mixes of aircraft in simulated combat environments.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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