Pentagon Recruiting Software Developers for Drone ‘App Store’

By Sandra I. Erwin
The military’s unmanned aircraft, like smartphones, need regular software upgrades. For the Defense Department, this is a costly proposition because drones are not disposable devices, and each technology refresh can cost millions of dollars.

With a fleet of several thousand unmanned air vehicles and a shrinking budget, the Pentagon expects to cut back on purchases of new aircraft and to update the existing inventory. Under the traditional business model, the military would pay the aircraft manufacturer to develop new software operating systems and applications. That approach is no longer affordable or desirable, Pentagon officials say.

When Pentagon budgets were soaring over the past decade, such inefficiency was not questioned. That changed in 2009, when then Undersecretary of Defense John Young directed the military services to adopt a “joint standard architecture” for unmanned vehicle ground control stations.

The policy resulted in the creation of UCS, or unmanned air systems control segment. It is a “service-oriented” architecture that guides the development of new software used in the operation of unmanned vehicles. The Defense Department’s procurement policy guide, known as Better Buying Power, endorses UCS as an “open architecture that enables real competition between subsystem suppliers … and subsystem reuse across DoD systems.”

In a service-oriented architecture, individual modules collectively function like a large software application. Owners of separate systems can share software and cooperate, which over the long run could save the Defense Department billions of dollars in software costs, officials predict.

The best analogy to what the Pentagon is trying to do with UCS ( is the smartphone market, says Rich Ernst, team leader for interoperability at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“The goal is to develop a business model behind the ground control station,” Ernst tells National Defense. Every unmanned aircraft’s ground control station has similar software needs: a weather app, blue-force tracker, cursor on target, weapons release and situational awareness. If those applications were available in a standard format, he says, the military services could download them and upgrade their ground control stations, rather than pay vehicle manufacturers to develop proprietary software.

In the smartphone world, independent vendors supply the apps, Ernst says. The same model could be used for drones’ ground stations.

Even though ground stations come in vastly different varieties — some are in fixed sites, others mounted in mobile trailers or aboard ships — they all need similar applications, says Ernst. He estimates there are about 255 apps that are relevant to ground control stations and could be standardized across the military’s unmanned aircraft fleets. 

The intent is not to reinvent the ground control station, but to evolve it to an open architecture so unmanned aircraft owners can reuse software, Ernst says. “We are driving down the cost of inserting new capability into the ground control station.”

To test the app store concept, the Pentagon asked unmanned aircraft manufacturers in 2009 to develop 12 apps and install them in each others’ ground control stations. They worked, Ernst says. The average integration time was 77 hours, compared to weeks or months for traditional systems.

The Defense Department wants to take this further. “We are developing a marketplace,” he says. “We are developing the language for the ground control station. We want to eliminate the monolithic approach and the hard coding. We want to prevent vendor lock-in.”

Ernst recognizes that this effort is not as simple as it might sound. The Pentagon consulted intellectual property lawyers to make sure vendors’ IP rights were protected. “We are developing a roadmap for how industry can participate and prosper in the unmanned air systems community,” Ernst says. His office drafted generic “request for proposals” language that the military services can include in their solicitations for software apps.

Since 2009, more than 200 organizations have participated in the UCS architecture, says Ernst. The goal is to have every major drone fleet in the Defense Department compliant with the UCS standards. So far, the Navy and the Army have made the most progress, Ernst says. The Navy’s future carrier-based unmanned aircraft, called UCLASS, will have UCS “baked into it,” he says.

The Air Force’s Predator and Reaper remotely piloted aircraft fleets are “in the process of becoming compliant,” says Ernst. “It takes time to evolve the standards.”

Air Force drones follow a messaging standard, called UCI (unmanned systems command and control standard initiative), that facilitates machine-to-machine communication and reuse of services.

Ernst says the broader UCS standard is compatible with UCI and other protocols that exist across the Defense Department. “Like many project-specific solutions, UCI is driven by a selected small group of contractors,” he says. UCS supports “tri-service interoperability across all unmanned air system programs of record, including the Air Force’s UCI.”

The Defense Department wants the services to embrace the common language and the app store, Ernst says.

One of the companies that is competing for the Navy’s UCLASS vehicle development and manufacturing contract, Lockheed Martin Corp., recently tested new software that allows different unmanned air vehicles to be operated by a single command-and-control system. In a simulation, a single operator managed two UCLASS and two high-altitude maritime drones simultaneously.

Lockheed Martin, teamed with DreamHammer Government Solutions, also is in pursuit of the upcoming Naval Air Systems Command’s “common control system” contract.

NAVAIR is seeking to integrate current and future command- and-control systems into a common framework. A request for industry proposals is expected later this year.

Navy spokeswoman Emily Burdeshaw says the intent is to standardize software. “All Navy unmanned air systems have some degree of UCS architecture compliance,” she says. Navy leaders will later “evaluate the business case to migrate current unmanned systems to the common control software solution.”

Marty Jenkins, director of business development at Lockheed Martin, applauds the Pentagon for trying to impose some discipline into the unmanned systems world. “This is a big step,” he says. Unmanned vehicle purchases tend to be “end to end,” which means the military buys the vehicle, sensors and ground station as one package. “As you have more aircraft, it’s not affordable to continue to buy end-to-end systems,” says Jenkins. “It’s like cable TV. … When you add a new channel, you don’t buy a new TV.”

Lockheed’s partner DreamHammer is a commercial firm that is banking on the Defense Department’s app store to help grow its business. The firm spent $5 million to develop an application, called Ballista, which organizes how information is presented and displayed in a ground control station.

Nelson Paez, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, says DreamHammer started developing Ballista in 2009 in response to the Pentagon’s push for interoperability in military systems.

“The Defense Department has had a difficult time making unmanned systems from different contractors interoperable,” he says. “Ballista can integrate any vehicle — missiles, aircraft or ground vehicles.”

Rather than wait for a government contract, DreamHammer decided to invest corporate funds and create a product that it could sell in the commercial UAV market, which is expected to boom once the Federal Aviation Administration gives the green light to drones in the national airspace.

Paez sees the app store model as exactly what commercial companies need to be able to compete for government business. “To attract outside investors, the product had to be dual use,” he says. “If you go to Wall Street and you say your product is targeted at the government, they will slam the door in your face,” he says. “The acquisition process is a nightmare, and the market is completely cornered by the traditional defense industry.”

DreamHammer licenses its software development kits to UAV manufacturers so they can tailor them to their specific needs, says Paez.

“When budgets were growing, nobody was interested in interoperability, they were just building log cabins,” he says. “Now they are looking at how to do tech refresh, and legacy systems are too expensive to manage.” The current architecture and systems are not “what they need to move forward and be interoperable,” says Paez. “It’s a bridge too far.”

Boeing probably would never make a ground station or software that controls a Lockheed bird. “But if everyone uses our system they can work with each other,” he says. “Manufacturers are embracing this. They could license software instead of developing expensive proprietary systems.”

The commercial world already is starting to make investments in anticipation of a bigger market in commercial drones, he says. The non-defense UAV business is still limited not only by FAA restrictions but also by the high prices of drones. Small UAVs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Eventually, the “do-it-yourself community” using 3-D printing will build comparable drones for a couple thousand dollars, he says.

The government should be able to tap into this innovation, Paez says. “Smaller UAVs will have more capability because of our software, and they can integrate with larger systems.”

In the app world, customers often do not know what they want. “That’s exactly where the unmanned systems community in the Defense Department is at,” says Paez. “They are really looking for industry to provide them new and cheaper ways to do their business.”

One of DreamHammer’s angel investors is retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who led the military’s rapid adoption of UAVs.

“They’re developing a software application that provides something that the Defense Department has been looking for, for many years,” he says. “Ballista is a solution to the problem of standardization.” Being commercial software, Deptula adds, “You don’t have the problems associated with developing a system inside the ponderous Defense Department acquisition process.”

Paez predicts more vendors will join the UCS marketplace once they see the potential of dual-use UAV technology. The government can get new applications at less cost, and they are not stuck with outdated technology, he says. But the real issue for industry is whether there is a commercial market to justify investment in this technology. That remains to be seen, he adds, although he is optimistic.

“We look at UCS as doing it right.”

Topics: Defense Department, Infotech, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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