ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS

Army Considers Teaming Drones With Chinooks, Black Hawks

1/16/2014
By Valerie Insinna

The Army is analyzing whether it would be advantageous to team utility, medical-evacuation and cargo helicopters with unmanned aerial vehicles.

A request from troops in Afghanistan prompted Army aviation officials at Fort Rucker, Ala., to define whether a manned-unmanned teaming requirement exists for those aircraft, said Col. John Lynch, the Army's Training and Doctrine Command capability manager for attack and reconnaissance helicopters. No decisions have yet been made.

Such capability would be valuable for medical evacuation and air-assault missions, but questions remain over what roles UAVs would fill, Lynch said at a Jan. 16 meeting with reporters hosted by Boeing outside Washington, D.C.
“Is it really for the crew, or is really for the folks who are the customer” for the information provided by reconnaissance drones, Lynch asked.

During air assaults, it would be invaluable for mission commanders in the back of a UH-60 Black Hawk to be able to look at a real-time video stream — captured by a drone — of a landing zone and surrounding area. But officials don’t want to overload aircraft crews with too much data, he said. "Will they get focused on watching the video ... as opposed to flying and landing the aircraft?"

Manned-unmanned teaming could also help medevac helicopter crews, who often have to land under fire or in the immediate aftermath of a firefight, Lynch said.

“It would be good to have a look at the [landing zone] before you go pick up a patient and understand potentially where the enemy is,” he said. “Is it still hot? ... Where am I going to land? Is it going to be a hoist? Is it going to be a landing to the ground situation?”

The service is already developing manned-unmanned teaming capability between AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and Gray Eagle and Shadow UAVs. Army officials announced earlier this week that the service is considering using those teams to conduct reconnaissance missions currently flown by the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior.

The first round of AH-64Es will be deployed to war zones this year, and will be able to conduct teamed missions with Shadows and Gray Eagles quickly after they arrive, Lynch said.  

How long it would take to team a drone with a CH-47 Chinook will depend on how much control the helicopter crew would have over the drone, said Col. Rob Barrie, the Army’s project manager for cargo helicopters.

“If we're trying to integrate it into the cockpit suite, that's a significantly different animal than a monitor in the back of the helicopter,” he said.

Dave Koopersmith, Boeing’s vice president of attack helicopters, said its AH-6I Little Bird could also be  configured to fly in concert with UAVs, but customers would need to consider how much capability they need.

“Do you just want to get streaming video, or do you want to share streaming video? Do you want to do what we're doing with higher levels of interoperability on the Echo-model [of the Apache] where … we can basically take control of the Gray Eagle and do everything except for takeoff and land?” he asked.

Manned-unmanned teaming eventually will be a true game changer, but how quickly it reaches that level of effectiveness is up for debate, Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer for aviation, told reporters at a Jan. 14 exit interview at the Association of the U.S. Army Aviation symposium and exhibition. He is retiring this month after five years as Army Aviation’s lead acquisition official.

Crosby witnessed demonstrations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where the Apache identified and destroyed every target using a video feed from a Gray Eagle, he said.
The service should push itself to advance such technologies, but officials must also consider the limitations of unmanned systems and not move too quickly, he warned.

“There are zealots that say you can do it today, you can fight with UAVs from 800 miles back. We're in a line of work where we can't afford to get it wrong,” he said. “When ... some pencil necked geek sitting behind a desk makes an assertion, 'You can do that today,’ [they need to realize] you're putting that soldier's life on the line.”

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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