UAV designers eye open-systems common UAV ground control stations able to operate several different unmanned aircraft

SAN DIEGO, 18 June 2010. The increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is calling out for commonality among UAV ground control stations (GCSs) to save money in training and development costs, explains Christopher Ames, director of strategic development at UAV designer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego. In response to this need, the U.S. military services are developing requirements for UAV ground control stations that are platform independent to reduce costs and enhance operator flexibility.

Posted by John McHale
Posted by John McHale

SAN DIEGO, 18 June 2010. The increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is calling out for commonality among UAV ground control stations (GCSs) to save money in training and development costs, says explains Christopher Ames, director of strategic development at UAV designer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego. In response to this need, the U.S. military services are developing requirements for UAV ground control stations that are platform independent to reduce costs and enhance operator flexibility.

Military leaders are investigating common UAV ground control stations that are “designed around an open systems architecture,” says Ed Walby, director of business development of the HALE Systems Enterprise at the Northrop Grumman’s Strike and Surveillance Systems division in San Diego. “Much the same as today's computers use common processors and USB ports for peripherals, tomorrow’s ground segments will have similar hardware -- a main operation system but different applications running to control different platforms or sensors.”

An example of a common GCS in operation would have a Global Hawk operator team finishing their mission, then a Fire Scout or Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) team comes into the same GCS and uses it to fly the Fire Scout or BAMS just by switching to a different software module, Walby says. (For more on UAV ground control stations, see Ground control stations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming networking-hub cockpits on the ground for U.S. unmanned forces).

The system will be based on an open architecture, keeping the software independent from the hardware, Walby says. Currently Northrop Grumman is developing a GCS that works with all Northrop Grumman platforms, but down the road the Air Force, as well as other services, may want a GCS that is independent of supplier and platform, he adds.

General Atomics officials are developing the next-generation "Advanced Cockpit" GCS, Ames says. "The Advanced Cockpit's design significantly improves the pilot's situational awareness while reducing the workload. "It greatly increases the operator's situational awareness through the use of mulitple high-definition "wrap around" displays that use Digital Elevation and Terrain Data (DTED) to provide a 120-degree view across the cockpit's large high-definition screens.

"Computer symbology can be electronically presented on the screens so that the pilot has a comprehensive common operating picture of the airspace in which he is operating," Ames explains. "This 120-degree view augments the pilot's otherwise narrow field of view camera system. Ergonomically designed to optimize flight crew performance, the Advanced Cockpit uses intuitive touch screen displays to reduce training time and cost.

"It employs sophisticated software that includes the use of 3-D moving maps, providing the pilot with the ability to track" the Predator-series UAV's movement in a multi-dimensional display, Ames continues. "It also employs a "modular open architecture that allows incorportation of best-of-breed components, reducing costs while improving interoperability and capability."

The Advanced Cockpit is currently in flight test and is expected to be available around 2013, he adds.

All of this commonality will be accomplished through the software, Walby says. “We will leverage as much COTS as possible, depending on how mission critical the system is,” he says. Open architectures and common standards and equipment will be important for these systems.

As the services move to the next-generation common ground station they will probably use the Linux operating system, says Mike Roberts, control segment integrated product team manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. The hardware has yet to be determined, as the Navy is still developing requirements, he adds.

In determining the type of operating system to use “it just depends on how you define real-time,” Roberts says. The time between when Fire Scout operators initiate a command and see it carried out on screen by the aircraft needs to be short enough to seem instantaneous to them -- it needs to be deterministic but not necessarily hard-real time like some avionics systems, he explains.

The technology to accomplish this is already here; what is taking time is nailing down the requirements among the Air Force, Navy, Army, and in some cases NATO, Walby says. “Today the Air Force and Navy are working closely together to ensure the Global Hawk and BAMS systems are closely aligned with regard to this open architecture ground control system."

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