Manned-Unmanned Teaming Takes Off: Sponsored Content

December 1, 2020
By Henry S. Kenyon

Collaborative communications critical to growing alliances and autonomy to disrupt and defeat adversaries in contested environments

Over the last two decades, unmanned systems have evolved from relatively simple surveillance and reconnaissance to sophisticated and increasingly autonomous system-of-systems that are a key part of U.S. military strategy and tactics.

In what seemed like science fiction only a few years ago, artificial intelligence empowered unmanned systems teaming with manned platforms are shaping up as the path for future operations. The evolution of smarter sensors coupled with automated processing tasks now being performed right at the point of interest are also essential to this growth, which is now mature enough to allow more coordinated teamwork between manned and unmanned systems on the battlefield.

At its most basic level, autonomous systems still must be directed by some human in the loop in terms of their actions, and this requires some form of a command and control link that connects that human (wherever he or she may be) with the autonomous systems operating in the battlespace.

A key enabler for this has been the extensive use of reliable and robust communications in unmanned aerial system (UAS) platforms over the past decade, explains Jon Stearn, a systems engineer at Viasat Inc. He notes that has not always been the case. When UAS platforms were first fielded, some lacked encryption of their sensor feeds to prevent unintended entities from intercepting the signal and accessing protected data.

This has since changed, with layers of encryption and other communications security added to UAS platforms to ensure their data streams can’t be detected or disrupted. Trust in the quality of information being received from and sent to increasingly autonomous platforms is a critical part of U.S. operational doctrine going into the future, says Andrew Kessler, vice president and business area director for Viasat’s Next Generation Tactical Data Links business.

“The first thing that has to be done for an effective autonomous element of an overall force [structure] is the ability to seamlessly communicate across disparate UAS platforms. Then you have to do it in a way that the communications are protected so you can trust that the information is being disseminated to where and when it’s needed, even within contested electromagnetic environments,” Kessler explains.

Evolution of force multiplication

The concept behind the efficient coordination for manned and unmanned platforms is known as Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). This describes a range of ongoing Department of Defense programs and projects seeking to make this coordination more efficient and integral to modern military operations.

Kessler notes that over the years this evolved from airborne and ground UASs being remotely controlled or piloted by humans from ground stations to new systems that can be launched and controlled by aircraft, or that can autonomously operate and share information with manned platforms. In this manner, the unmanned system acts as an extension of the “eyes and ears” of the manned weapon system.

Information exchanges

Just as UAS evolved from more basic, remotely controlled platforms to their current sophisticated state, so too do the communications enabling these MUM-T operational concepts. As UAS platforms become more autonomous, they need to resiliently and reliably exchange information with other manned and unmanned systems on the battlefield. This can be to enable command and control, exchange targeting information, provide sensor feeds, or to generally enhance situational awareness for nodes across the battlespace, Kessler said.

Another important key to realizing the MUM-T concept is interoperability. Various platforms and systems have to share information with each other to effectively coordinate operations. One way to achieve this is through a common data link or network, such as Link 16, which can facilitate seamless and survivable connectivity between systems across the operational theater, leading to higher levels of shared situational awareness.

In addition to being a proven communications technology, Link 16 also offers the advantage of the “network effect”—where the value of the information being moved is increased as a function of the number of nodes in a network. The more platforms, both manned and unmanned, that are operating on a particular network, the more pathways are created for a particular message to get from Point A to Point B, says Dr. Pete Camana, chief technology officer of Tactical Data Links at Viasat. In order to leverage this synergy, the new entrants into the battlespace in the form of additional autonomous systems need to participate in that network.

“You lose capability when you don’t have that direct digital interoperability between these new autonomous systems and the existing components of the force that are still going to be in the battlespace for decades,” Camana says.

“By leveraging this extended network, it transforms the foundational operational construct from merely a cooperative air, ground and sea capability, into to a fully integrated and efficient 21st century combined arms force,” Camana adds. This lack of interoperability has the potential to hinder situational understanding, lethality and survivability in the future near-peer operating environment.

Army now leading the way

The U.S. Army is looking at a number of ways to use autonomous platforms to help with MUM-T applications in the field. Camana notes that the service wants to control certain sensors, change fields of view, and use lasers for ranging and weapons designation with the added potential to program UAS to fly specific routes and/or reconnaissance patterns. These applications, along with increased range and the ability to seamlessly operate on multiple waveforms, will enable attack crews to communicate with multiservice UASs, facilitating true joint MUM-T interoperability.

These platforms can be sent into high-threat environments, effectively minimizing the amount of time required in the objective area and reducing the risk to both the manned aircraft and aircrew, he says.

But for these systems to effectively extend the range of Army forces, their communications links need to be both interoperable and secure across many platforms. For example, such manned-unmanned teaming could be a Gray Eagle MALE UAS acting as a persistent sensor over part of the battlefield, or a tactical system such as a RQ-7 Shadow performing terminal guidance for air or ground launched weapons, Camana explains.

The presence of many UASs in a theater of operations also helps enhance the common operational picture—where commanders have a clear picture of friendly and enemy force locations. Besides providing enhanced situational awareness to all of the platforms on the battlefield, common data links operating on manned and unmanned, interoperable platforms helps avoid accidents such as midair collisions and fratricide incidents, Camana says.

Air-launched effects also reflect an advancement in the Army’s approach to unmanned platforms, notes Kessler. He explains that until recently, the Army wasn’t thought of as a lead service in terms of developing autonomous systems and remotely guided weapons. The service previously focused its UAS platforms predominantly for reconnaissance and situational awareness, with platforms assigned to very small units to provide battlefield intelligence and communications.

The ability for helicopters and other Army aircraft to launch a variety of unmanned platforms, either for observation, weapons guidance, or as autonomous sensor/weapons platforms, are new steps in this direction, Kessler says.

Integrated communications facilitate UAS missions

As the Army continues to develop its multidomain battle concept with MUM-T playing a larger role in operations going forward, the ability to deploy ubiquitous data links like Link 16 will help with this process. From its Cold War origins as an airborne system to direct fighters against incoming enemy attack aircraft, Link 16 has become a key part of many ground and seaborne platforms.

In the near future, Camana expects to see Link 16 used for sensor-to-shooter information via a variety of manned and unmanned platforms. With over 15,000 platforms across 40 countries, Link 16 will be increasingly leveraged for information exchange and command and control between interoperable platforms with swarms operating autonomously—making them well suited for contested environments, he says.

“As we bring more UAS to the fight, they will be more like manned platforms and will have to interact with each other and other manned platforms,” notes Kessler.

This makes Link 16 a natural choice as a key part of an overarching, redundant approach to link all of these disparate systems into a single operational network, Kessler explains. Practically, this means there will be more use of Link 16 as one of the “last mile” connections between different platform types.

As systems become more autonomous in the near future, enhanced communications will help keep humans in the loop, even as that control migrates to a system of systems of autonomous vehicles operating in the field, notes Camana.

But to get to this point, the DOD needs to ensure there is a “common, robust way to exchange information for both command and control and situational awareness,” Camana says, adding that many of the military’s communications needs are going to remain the same “whether there’s someone physically in that system or not.”

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