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unmanned systems

Unmanned Cargo System Faces Uncertain Future Following Afghanistan Deployment

May 1, 2013
By George I. Seffers

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officials describe the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter as having met or exceeded requirements in Afghanistan, but they also report that the Marines have not yet developed requirements for the system to become a program of record and say they are unsure what effect sequestration will have on the system.

The Marines deployed two K-MAX aircraft to Afghanistan in late 2011 as part of an urgent operational need to ferry supplies to and from forward operating bases, reducing the number of manned flights or vulnerable convoys in an attempt to reduce casualties. The deployment is designed to demonstrate the system’s capabilities, and the Marines recently announced the indefinite extension of the K-MAX mission in Afghanistan. To date, the unmanned helicopters have delivered more than 3.2 million pounds of cargo and continue to keep ground convoys off the roads, significantly reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices and other lethal threats, Marine officials say. The system carries supplies such as ammunition, food and water, generators, medical supplies and even mail.

Maj. Daniel Lindblom, USMC, operations officer for Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, said during a May 1 teleconference with reporters that the system’s performance “has been absolutely superb.” The unmanned helicopter offers some advantages to manned aircraft, especially for emergency resupply missions. “That’s where we really make our money,” says Maj. Lindblom. “The ability for us to plan on the fly and execute on the fly is quite a bit better, in my opinion, than manned aircraft.”

Advanced Capabilities Required for Future Navy Warfighting

April 4, 2013
By Robert K. Ackerman

Future conflicts likely will be fought in degraded information technology environments, which will require the U.S. Navy to develop and exploit new capabilities to continue to operate in contested cyberspace. Technologies such as a flexible information grid, assured timing services and directed energy weapons must be part of the naval information system arsenal if the sea service is to maintain information dominance through the year 2028.

These were just a few of the findings presented in the Navy’s Information Dominance Roadmap 2013-2028, which was released in late March. Presented by Rear Adm. William E. Leigher, USN, the Navy’s director of warfighter integration, the report outlines the growing challenges facing the fleet and how the Navy must meet them.

The report divides information dominance challenges into three areas: assured command and control (C2), battlespace awareness and integrated fires. While the United States will continue to maintain supremacy in those areas, that supremacy is shrinking as more nations are closing the gap between U.S. capabilities and the ability to disrupt them.

Among the advanced capabilities the Navy will require toward the end of the next decade is assured electromagnetic spectrum access. Achieving this will entail fielding greater numbers of advanced line-of-sight communication systems; being able to monitor combat system operational status and adjust it using automated services; having a real-time spectrum operations capability that enables dynamic monitoring and control of spectrum emissions; and generating a common operational picture of the spectrum that is linked to electronic navigation charts and displays operational restrictions.

Modernized Marine Drone Casts a Large Shadow

April 1, 2013
By George I. Seffers

The upgraded RQ-7 could play a significant role in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. Marine Corps could potentially begin fielding newly upgraded RQ-7 Shadow systems as early as next year, according to experts. The new version of the combat-proven aircraft is fully digitized, improves interoperability, can be teamed with manned aircraft and provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to a broader range of warfighters, including manned aircraft crews. The upgraded system is intended to serve as an interim capability until the Marine Corps can field a larger, more capable unmanned aircraft.

The Shadow unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has flown more than 800,000 flight hours with more than 90 percent of those during combat. Both the Marines and the Army use the system. The Army is the lead service, integrating Marine Corps requirements with its own.

Shadow is being modernized with an array of upgraded capabilities, including a Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL); a universal ground control station capable of controlling multiple systems, including Gray Eagle and Shadow; and a Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). It also is being given a longer wingspan to increase time on station from six hours to 10 and more capable engines. Additionally, the military seeks to weaponize the system.

The Marines already have pulled the Shadow from Afghanistan, but the modernized system could play a significant role in the future. “As we look toward the Asia-Pacific region, we need more capable solutions that will allow us to feed data to the warfighter,” says Maj. Nicholas Neimer, USMC, the Marine Corps tactical unmanned aerial system coordinator. “Everything we do as far as improvements is to deliver real-time data to the warfighter and provide knowledge at the point of action.”

Two-in-One Unmanned Aircraft

February 25, 2013
By George I. Seffers

U.S. Navy technology may allow in-flight conversion from helicopter to fixed wing.

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are developing unmanned aircraft technology that will allow the conversion from a vertical take-off and landing system to a fixed-wing craft during in-flight operation. The conversion capability will provide the take-off and landing flexibility of a helicopter with the longer range, higher speeds and lower wear and tear of an airplane.

The technology demonstrator is referred to as the Stop-Rotor Rotary Wing Aircraft. It is capable of cruising at about 100 knots, weighs less than 100 pounds and can carry a 25-pound intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) or electronic warfare payload, such as the Expendable, Mobile Anti-submarine warfare Training Target (EMATT). “We decided to do a demonstration vehicle that could carry an EMATT. It’s like a little submarine that can generate sonar signals, and it’s for training anti-submarine warfare operators,” explains Steven Tayman, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory. “It’s a neat payload.”

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) includes a removable payload bay that is about 12 inches wide, 38 inches long and six inches deep with “bomb bay doors” for dropping payloads, such as sonobuoys. “You could use a UAV to deploy a sonobuoy field, which would be pretty exciting,” Tayman says. “There’s really no limit to the payload other than volume.”

NASA Leverages 
Video Game
 Technology for Robots and Rovers

February 11, 2013
By Max Cacas

Earthbound technologies and computer programming that make most popular video games possible are driving development of the remote-controlled robots now in use by NASA in the unmanned exploration of Mars and the solar system. Those improvements in both hardware and software also spur innovation in the next generation of robots envisioned for use by government and industry. That is important because NASA recently has proposed a new, multiyear program of sending robot explorers to Mars, culminating in the launch of another large scientific rover in the year 2020.

“The technologies and the software that the video game industry has developed for rendering data, scenes, terrain—many of the same visualization techniques and technologies are infiltrating into the kinds of software that we use for controlling spacecraft,” according to Jeff Norris, manager of the Planning and Execution Systems Section with NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. In a similar way, joysticks and gaming consoles such as the Microsoft XBox Kinect are examples of gaming technology hardware that have functional analogues in the systems used to control robotic spacecraft.

Sensor, Listening
 Device Integration
 Provide Battlefield Intelligence Boon

February 1, 2013
By Clarence A. Robinson Jr.

Industry opens up an array of real-time imaging

Sweeping advances in sensor technologies are enabling wide-area airborne persistent surveillance on both manned and unmanned aircraft. Emerging sensor systems can provide high-resolution mosaic imagery for large swaths of the battlefield while focusing on individual objects.

These intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensor systems are winning their spurs on the battlefield in Afghanistan. They are meeting combat commanders’ urgent operational requirements to provide city-size area coverage. These sensors simultaneously can focus on and track individual vehicles and dismounted hostiles.

Sensor systems such as the Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) offer radical improvements for ISR. This sensor system was developed for special operations by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). BAE Systems provides the optics and processing technologies. Argus was envisioned to be mounted in a pod on the A-160 Hummingbird (SIGNAL Magazine, June 2007, page 43, “High Hover”) unmanned rotary wing aircraft headed for Afghanistan. However, an A-160 crash during trials prior to deployment is delaying the move.

Testing with the sensor pod mounted on a Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter continues before combat deployment. This slight deployment delay also is enabling incorporating more recent advances in both sensor and processing technologies. ARGUS-IS also may be mounted on other unmanned aircraft, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, extending time on station. The camera is being considered for additional multiple wide-area persistent surveillance programs.

Robotic Autonomous Activities Advance

December 13, 2012

A vision-driven robotic arm will enable the precise long-range delivery of a payload weighing up to one pound into difficult-to-reach environments.

 

Swarming to a Better Robot

November 1, 2012
By Max Cacas

Unmanned underwater vehicles mimic nature and collaborate on tasks.

Robotics experts are using the swarming behavior of insects and fish as a model for software that will operate the next generation of underwater robots. Fleets of robots not only will be able to navigate to a common goal, but they also will have the means to deal autonomously with unanticipated factors, much as insects and fish can change behaviors based on the circumstances.

In nature, a swarm consists of many individuals with the innate ability to behave individually but operate toward a collective goal as needed. In a similar fashion, scientists are developing advanced mathematical algorithms and software to give underwater robots the ability to navigate toward the same location while also enabling them to deal independently with changing factors such as currents, obstacles and even other approaching ships that are not part of the swarm.

The distinction between a group of robots that individually receive the same programming to reach the same goal and a group of robots that behave like a swarm is that the swarming vehicles collaborate to achieve a set of tasks, explains Pierre Lermusiaux, head of the Multidisciplinary Simulation, Estimation and Assimilation Systems (MSEAS) research group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The set of tasks and the collaboration give the swarm a purpose, he adds, and that purpose becomes an added factor in the mathematical programming of the robots. Lermusiaux leads a team of mechanical engineering graduate students and research scientists with expertise in mathematical algorithms and their application in robotic systems.

Era of Change for 
Unmanned Systems

November 1, 2012
By George I. Seffers

The next five years will be as exciting as the last decade--but in a different way.

Unmanned vehicles will undergo an array of changes in the coming years brought about by the war in Afghanistan winding down, budgets tightening and the national strategy shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region. Adjustments may include the retirement of some unmanned air systems, a stronger focus on refining existing unmanned planes rather than fielding new ones and increased research and development of land and maritime technologies.

The U.S. military will not be fielding many new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the current war, but the situation is not all gloom and doom, says Dyke Weatherington, director, Unmanned Warfare and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Strategic and Tactical Systems in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “The last 10 years have been very dynamic. We’ve seen rapid growth and huge increases in force structure. My guess is that the next five years will be equally dynamic in a different way. There’s huge potential for continued capability increases in ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] for the warfighter. I just think that’s going to look a little different than it has in the last 10 years.”

For the most part, that means the U.S. military will take capabilities it already has for UAVs and refine those as much as possible. Improvements could include fielding new capabilities to existing platforms, enhancing current payloads or reducing ownership costs, he explains.

Mixing With 
Manned Aircraft

November 1, 2012
By George I. Seffers

A new crash avoidance 
system will allow both 
manned and unmanned
 planes to operate 
in U.S. airspace. 

The U.S. Army is developing a collision avoidance system that will allow unmanned and manned aircraft to fly in the same airspace more easily and safely. The first-of-its kind system will enable service operators returning from the war zone to fly drones in the same U.S. skies as civilian aircraft, keeping the warfighters proficient and ready for the next conflict.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that a pilot be able to see and avoid other aircraft flying in the same airspace. But of course, drones have no onboard pilots. The Army currently has two FAA-approved options for meeting the requirement, and neither option is good, service officials say. The first is to fly a manned chase aircraft, such as a Cessna or a helicopter, behind the unmanned air system (UAS) to ensure it complies with FAA safety regulations. “It’s expensive. You can’t chase at night, and you can’t chase in clouds, so warfighters are limited,” says Viva Austin, Army product director for the Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration Concepts office. Another option is to use ground observers, but the observer must remain within about a mile and a half of the aircraft.

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