ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Europe, U.S. Targeting Robotic Wingman Programs
Photo: Jon Harper
PARIS — At this year’s Paris Air Show, European powers and the United States laid out ambitious plans to pair stealth fighters with unmanned aerial vehicles that could serve as robotic wingmen in high-end combat.
The big news from the opening day of the biennial confab — which brings together government and aerospace industry leaders from around the world — was the unveiling of a mockup of the future combat air system, or FCAS. The Franco-German-Spanish project envisions a sixth-generation stealth fighter teamed with autonomous drones, known as remote carriers, via an “air combat cloud” to facilitate data sharing.
“The progress we have achieved on the FCAS program in recent months is remarkable,” Dassault Aviation Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier said in a statement. “It will shape Europe’s most decisive military air-combat program for the decades to come.”
The program will soon shift from a joint concept phase which began earlier this year to a demonstrator phase, which will run through mid-2021 and serve as a starting point for demonstrators and technology development for the systems to fly by 2026, prime contractors Dassault and Airbus said in a joint press release.
Contract awards for the demonstrator phase are expected by the end of this year.
While Dassault will take the lead on developing the new stealth fighter, Airbus will serve as the prime contractor for the remote carriers and the air-combat cloud.
“The idea behind the remote carriers is that you will have a manned mothership, so to speak, accompanied by … drones that are flying in the swarm, which are having [to perform] different tasks depending on the mission,” Florian Taitsch, head of media relations for Airbus Defense and Space, said in an interview at the air show.
Those missions could include a variety of tasks such as reconnaissance, electronic jamming, and marking or destroying targets, he said.
Having many “loyal wingmen” working in tandem with the manned platform will provide a “very powerful” capability for warfighters, he added.
The drones could be a tactic to keep airmen out of harm’s way. In a high-threat environment, it would be preferable to send a remote carrier than a manned platform, Taitsch said.
Program participants are also looking to ease the cognitive burden for pilots, he noted.
“We need to make the [remote carrier] system as intelligent as possible,” Taitsch said. “What is a big help is the current huge steps in terms of artificial intelligence to make these drones not just dull [platforms] but really intelligent carriers with also a certain amount of autonomy” to navigate and perform tasks on their own, he added.
An important variable will be the size and weight of the drones, he noted. Larger platforms could be launched from a runway. “But there might be also smaller ones that you put, for example, into an A400 [transport aircraft], fly them into the scenario and then you open the A400 … back door and they are dropping out and then flying next to their manned fighter aircraft. It’s one of those things we are currently investigating,” he said.
Post-mission aircraft recovery is another factor that must be considered.
“There could be the possibility that there are some small ones where you say, ‘OK, we can produce them rather cheaply’ and you simply don’t recover them,” he said. “Then there are more important and more expensive assets where you need to make up your mind on how to recover them” to include potentially programing them to fly back on their own, he added.
The next-generation fighter is expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2040, but some FCAS technologies might be ready sooner. Basic configurations of remote carriers could potentially be paired with Eurofighters by the mid-2020s, Taitsch said.
Airbus anticipates that development and certification cycles will be much shorter for future iterations of remote carriers than manned platforms, he noted.
During the air show, Airbus and Pittsburgh-based ANSYS announced a partnership for ANSYS to develop new technology to enable safe and sophisticated flight operations for the drones. The companies hope to achieve autonomous flight of the platforms by 2030.
ANSYS already has a Scade tool for flight controls that is being widely used by its customers, but designing, certifying and embedding verified and certified software code for an advanced, autonomous drone is much more complicated than it is for manned aircraft, said Eric Bantegnie, vice president of the systems business unit at ANSYS.
“The envelope of flight and the envelope of maneuvering of unmanned aircraft is much bigger because you don’t have the constraints of having the pilot in terms of Gs, in terms of acceleration, in terms of evading maneuvers,” he said. “It’s really a good case for introducing AI-based algorithms for all of these new, different capabilities.”
The plan is for Airbus to train neural networks and have them learn advanced and sophisticated motions and maneuvers to operate the remote carriers. “Then they would rely on ANSYS technology to move from the trained neural network to a safe, real time, certified, software-based implementation of that, … to a code that can be executed safely by a [flight control] computer on an aircraft,” Bantegnie explained.
As the technology progresses, the sophistication and the complexity of the algorithms could grow 10-fold or 100-fold, he said. The remote carriers must be able to conduct complex, high speed operations in real time, he noted.
“The sheer volume of code and [artificial] intelligence that could be potentially added to the systems is really huge, and there is no way [to do] that without properly automating all the verification steps” to ensure that the algorithms will function properly and the drones will fly safely, he added.
ANSYS is also working on perception software tools that could be used to enhance safety. Tasks such as sensor fusion, threat detection and target identification for the FCAS are envisioned to be based on AI, Bantegnie noted.
There are “very specific technologies for vision, which is different from [flight] controls,” he said. A new product announcement is expected in the coming months.
Meanwhile, Europe-based missile-maker MBDA, an FCAS program team member, has a plan to develop a family of remote carriers that could operate in anti-access/area denial environments where advanced anti-aircraft systems are deployed.
During the air show, the company unveiled two system concepts — the RC-100 and its “big brother,” the RC-200.
“In our conception of the remote carrier, we will … have a lot of synergy with our missile world” including the size, shape, weight, propulsion, flight envelope and modular payloads that comprise the systems, said Sebastien Palaprat, an engineer with MBDA. “To be ahead of the threats you have to share a lot of characteristics with the missile” weapons, he added.
For the smaller RC-100, “our idea is to have something so compact, light [that it would be] completely compatible with the launchers” on the next-generation fighter, he said.
They would share characteristics with MBDA’s “tactical-type weapons family” such as the SmartGlider. The systems could operate in swarms and be networked with other weapons, he noted.
The RC-200 would be larger and possess greater endurance, range and payload capacity, Palaprat said. MBDA envisions them being deployed from ground- and sea-based vertical launch tubes, or from larger aircraft.
“In an A2/AD environment, the remote carrier is here with its own sensor … where it’s so dangerous for your [manned] platform that you won’t go there even if you have stealth,” he said.
The drones could be used to detect and trigger enemy air defense systems, and be equipped with electronic warfare capabilities, he noted.
MBDA is still considering various characteristics of the remote carrier concept such as speed and stealth.
“The idea now with the remote carrier is that they are expendable,” Palaprat said, so stealth capabilities might not be necessary.
The platforms are expected to be operational no later than 2040 as part of the FCAS. But an intermediate capability in the form of a “remote carrier-like” system — perhaps an evolved smart weapon with new AI technology — could potentially be ready in the late 2020s, he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force is moving forward with its own robotic wingman project. During the Paris Air Show, Kratos announced that its XQ-58A Valkyrie drone completed its second successful test flight at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, that lasted 71 minutes.
The XQ-58A demonstrator, developed by Kratos in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory, is part of the low-cost attritable strike demonstrator program. The goal of the initiative is to “break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft,” Kratos said in a press release.
The Valkyrie is a multi-mission, runway-independent unmanned aerial system capable of long-range flights at high-subsonic speeds, according to Kratos.
It is the first technology of its kind that will “change the way we fly and fight, and build and buy,” AFRL program manager Doug Szczublewski said in a press release.
A total of five test flights are planned for the Valkyrie to evaluate system functionality, aerodynamic performance, and launch and recovery systems.
“We’re very happy with the performance,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said during a meeting with reporters at the air show.
“That was our first foray into attritable aircraft,” he said. “It’s expensive enough to be lethal but cheap enough to be used in an aggressive, non-risk averse way. … It’s certainly not a throwaway but it’s cheap enough that you can take a level of risks that we couldn’t take with a manned platform.”
Warfighters want the service to buy 20 to 30 aircraft for a series of experiments that would team Valkyries with the fighter force, he said. “I’m now looking at ways to do that and what the cost would be.”
“Depending on what comes out of that campaign the idea would be to look to do ... a program of record or to start spiraling the development to get something better,” Roper said.
A program of record could be included in the 2021 program objective memorandum, he added.
Greg Ulmer, vice president and general manager of the F-35 program at Lockheed Martin, said the joint strike fighter could be a prime candidate for networking with drones.
“The data sensor fusion approach to the airplane, as well as our relationship with our brethren at the Skunk Works [division of the company], I think very well align relative to unmanned teaming and the F-35’s ability to play in that realm,” he told reporters at the air show.
If the green light is given, the Valkyrie could go into production and fielding relatively quickly in two to three years, Roper said. “What I’m really pleased to say is we’re getting strong buy-in, strong appetite and pull for attritable systems by our pilots.”