Ground control stations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming networking-hub cockpits on the ground for U.S. unmanned forces

Special report -- Unmanned aircraft are a huge advantage for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, providing surveillance, reconnaissance, and precision strike capability to U.S. forces. An ever present eye in the skies, UAV numbers are growing in the battlefield as well as domestically for use by law enforcement, weather monitoring, and by NASA for research. The aircraft themselves are sexy and exciting, but what many do not realize is that the amazing feats they perform are controlled and monitored from sophisticated ground control stations sometimes thousands of miles away from where the aircraft is flying.

Jun 18th, 2010
Posted by John McHale
Posted by John McHale

Unmanned aircraft are a huge advantage for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, providing surveillance, reconnaissance, and precision strike capability to U.S. forces. An ever present eye in the skies, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) numbers are growing in the battlefield as well as domestically for use by law enforcement, weather monitoring, and by NASA for research.

The aircraft themselves are sexy and exciting, but what many do not realize is that the amazing feats they perform are controlled and monitored from sophisticated UAV ground control stations sometimes thousands of miles away from where the aircraft is flying.

The ground control stations (GCSs) often are located in the in or near the battlefield but are can also be controlled bases in the U.S. A UAV “pilot” could have breakfast with his wife and kids in the morning, head off to work and fly missions over Afghanistan, then had home for a family dinner at night. (For more on UAV ground control stations see story, UAV designers eye open-systems common UAV ground control stations able to operate several different unmanned aircraft).

Ground control stations as a network hub

The ground control station has a central role in UAVs, says Christopher Ames, director of strategic development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego. he adds. The GCS acts as the hub for the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data generated by the unmanned aircraft’s payload.

Video and other data generated by the sensors such as the General Atomics Lynx SAR on the General Atomics Predator UAV is downloaded via datalinks to the GCS and then that information -- in near real-time -- is disseminated to troops in the field, other agencies, etc., Ames says. These same groups can also send information to the GCS for upload to the aircraft -- for example to have the aircraft fly to specific coordinates or make a strike on a new target, he adds.

A typical UAV ground control station has two consoles -- one for the aircraft operator and one for the payload operator, says Ed Walby, director, business development, HALE Systems Enterprise, at Northrop Grumman’s Strike and Surveillance Systems division in San Diego.

“The pilot can completely control the aircraft without a joystick,” he continues. “Instead he commands changes in aircraft flight by using a mouse and keyboard since the onboard computers are actually manipulating the control surfaces. Mission plans are pre-loaded into the aircraft pre-takeoff, so it is conceivable that the aircraft operator can just sit back and monitor his moving map display without interrupting the mission.”

However, it is rare that that happens, as no mission can be completely predicted, he says. The level of autonomy or pilot interaction typically is dictated on a mission to mission basis, Walby says. He notes that most often UAV operators are former or current pilots so that they are trained on air traffic control operations and flight dynamics.

“The pilot generally operates off of two mission displays -- normal pilot cockpit display and a route or map display,” Walby says. He also has at least two other monitors up and running displaying multiple chat rooms. The sensor operator has two displays also -- one showing sensor status and the other showing route of flight just like the pilot, also two more monitors for chat rooms.”

The General Atomics GCS has a pilot/aircraft operator and a payload operator, who handles all the intelligence coming from the ISR sensors, electro-optics and Lynx synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and who interfaces with others on the battlefield network, Ames says. This gives the pilot and payload operator situational awareness, he adds.

The General Atomics Predator series GCS operators also use high-definition displays, Ames says.

Payload control

In the past the payload operator would be trained to handle the basics of the computer system and forward incoming intelligence from the UAV to the intelligence analysts, command centers, troops in the field for analysis, Walby says. Now there is a trend to have the payload operator be trained as an intelligence analyst, so that if he sees something crucial that needs to be exploited immediately and “alert troops in the field as well as analysis centers for time sensitive targeting saving time,” he adds.

The payload operator communicates with others in the network through an online chat room, similar to the instant messaging services many consumers have on their home computers, Walby says.

For example the UAV’s electro-optics may be tracking a terrorist or other target through Kabul and this person may come in contact with a red vehicle or other object that other agencies may have been tracking, so the operator passes it along to others in the chat room such as the air operations center (AOC) for possible exploitation in other missions, he continues.

These images and sensor data will be disseminated by the payload operator to a wide area network (WAN) and intelligence analysts in some sector or agency might recognize a person of interest or other target as data they may have been looking for in a separate independent mission, Ames says.

It is a form of distributed situational awareness -- improving the battlefield picture for the UAV operators, troops on the ground, intelligence analysts, etc. -- and in near real-time, Ames says.

The Lynx Advanced Multi-channel Radar (AMR), the latest Lynx SAR system from General Atomics, is providing new information on dismounted targets to GCS operators and the battlefield network, according to a General Atomics release.

During testing of the Lynx AMR on the Predator B aircraft, the radar was specifically evaluated for dismount (personnel walking or running) detection performance over its full field-of-regard, according to a General Atomics release. Lynx AMR achieves dismount detection performance using space time adaptive processing (STAP) and delivers compliant STANAG 4607 output to the GCS and its dissemination channels. The GCS software also supports real-time cross-cueing to the aircraft’s electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) payload. STANAG 4607 is the NATO standard for ground moving target indicator formats.

“The ability to detect and track dismounts and slow moving vehicles over large areas and to cross-cue the on-board video sensor to areas of interest is an emerging military and civilian surveillance requirement, says Linden Blue, president, Reconnaissance Systems Group, General Atomics. “The Lynx AMR provides this capability over its full field-of-regard in a low-cost, plug-and-play configuration for Predator B and Sky Warrior Alpha aircraft.”

Walby, a former U2 pilot says UAV aircraft and payload operators are much more involved in the mission than he ever was -- “I was just a bus driver keeping the jet and payload safe,” along a pre-planned mission only capable of changing aircraft location but not interacting with the sensors.

The constant flow of intelligence from long-endurance UAVs such as the Global Hawk enables the operators to feed it to analysts, agencies around the world in near real-time, Walby continues. This information advantage is similar to “always being two to three moves ahead in a chess game,” he adds.

The GCS onboard ship

The U.S. Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter from Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in San Diego, Calif., has control stations based on the ground and aboard ship, says Mike Roberts, control segment integrated product team manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

The main difference between the ground stations and those aboard ship is that the shipboard control is plugged into the ship’s communication network while the ground control station uses a Northrop Grumman communication system, Roberts says. Fire Scout’s shipboard control station is housed in a room where the separate target illumination radar (STIR) was located and communicates directly with the ship’s air traffic control via the internal communications system, while the ground segment uses a radio to communicate with air traffic control, Roberts says.

The Fire Scout uses its FLIR Systems BRITE Star II electro-optic/infrared laser designator payload to provide reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition at sea, Roberts says.

The sensor played a prominent role in the first ever drug interdiction by the USS McInerney during a recent deployment in the eastern Pacific, according to a Northrop Grumman release. “During a routine Fire Scout training flight off the ship, the sensor detected and acquired a narcotics ‘go-fast’ boat. Fire Scout tracked the boat covertly for several hours, feeding real-time video back to the McInerney. Eventually, a U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement attachment aboard the ship was able to move in on the drug traffickers, seizing approximately 60 kilograms of cocaine.”

“Fire Scout is currently in the flight test portion of the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase of the program, which is taking place at the Webster Field annex of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md.,” says Brooks McKinney, spokesperson for Northrop Grumman. “SDD is scheduled to end at the end of this calendar year. A deployment is planned in early 2011. A decision on full rate production is expected in March 2011.

The Fire Scout payload operator controls the different functions of the sensors such as a laser range finder and communicates the intelligence through the ship via radio communication and other communication systems with ground forces, Navy ships, and the Coast Guard, Roberts says.

The most difficult task in flying an autonomous, unmanned helicopter at sea is landing the aircraft on a windy day aboard a moving target, Roberts says. At the end of its mission it will hover behind the ship, wait for a signal from the ship to land and use its instruments to determine the speed of the ship and its pitch/roll and position in the water to make a proper deck landing, he adds.

Fire Scout uses a system called the UAV common automatic recovery system (UCARS) from Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, Nev., that shoots “harpoons” into holes on a 7-foot diameter location on the deck, he continues. Once the harpoons are engaged and the deck sensors pick up the weight of the aircraft, crew members come out and chain it down. The entire landing is monitored from the control station in case any of the steps for landing -- harpoon or weight sensors -- malfunction, the landing can be aborted, Roberts says.

COTS integration on the Fire Scout control station

The Fire Scout control station uses COTS electronics in the control stations, Roberts says. For the control computer they use a Themis Computer RES-32 system running Sun Microsystems’ Solaris operating system, he adds.

The Themis RES-32s comes in a three rack unit chassis uses the Sun Microsystems 1.28GHz UltraSPARC IIIi processor ad have a XVR-1200 high performance graphics card, enabling 3-D graphics performance, Themis officials say. The RES-32s can be easily expanded through the addition of Sun or other commercially available, off the shelf networking cards, I/O, peripherals and other value-added, company officials say.

The racks are from 901D in Tallman, N.Y., and are qualified to MIL-STD 901D and MIL-STD 810, Roberts says. The company, 901D, named themselves after their product, he adds.

The software and protocols follow STANAG 4586, which is a NATO standard enabling NATO member nations to participate in military operations with their own unmanned systems sharing UAV-generated intelligence with each other, Roberts says.

Roberts also says that his team is looking at Ethernet now and in the long term because it is ubiquitous and makes integration a lot easier, he adds.

Like any integrator of COTS electronics Fire Scout engineers must deal with obsolescence management, Roberts says. If a product or component goes obsolete, vendors typically set up a notification and “we then go out and look for an equivalent part from the same vendor or from a different supplier,” Roberts says.

The lesson some vendors continue to “learn the hard way” is that they need to make their parts backwards compatible, Roberts says. Many times a part is discontinued and new one is offered without backwards compatibility, he adds.

When that happens, “we initiate a trade study and then put it up for competition,” Roberts continues.

Currently there are separate ground control stations for each UAV, Walby says. They are closed systems -- for example a Fire Scout GCS only works with a Fire Scout UAV and so on, he adds.

There are also differences within each platform depending on the end user, Walby says. For example NASA has a Global Hawk variant that has different requirements than the Air Force and these modifications are made in the software programs, he continues. The same is true for the European version of the Global Hawk -- the EuroHawk, Walby notes.

Human factors

The operators have a lot of input when it comes to designing the next-generation control stations, Roberts says. One of the recommendations is for a larger screen that replaces the two they use now on the Fire Scout -- the aircraft operator and mission payload operator each have two screens, Roberts says. It will be a large 16 by 9 screen aspect ratio high-resolution display, he adds.

“One request that I’ve heard a lot” is to have the screens and windows configurations more flexible to accommodate the individual tastes of each operator, Roberts says. In the past the services would mandate one fixed display configuration for every operator and platform, which benefits training but cuts down on the efficiency of the operators, who work better if they can customize their display configuration to their individual requirements, he explains.

Many of the kids coming out of school and boot camp are used to the flexibility of modern personal computers and video games and are familiar with machines that provide that, Roberts says.

Man-portable UAV control stations

Controllers for small, man-portable UAVs are simple, easy to use systems that go from a system packed in a rucksack on the warfighter’s back to an operable system in five minutes, says Scott Newbern, program manager for Aerovironment in Simi Valley, Calif.

“When the bullets are flying around, operators need the system to be simple to easy to and the data easily understood,” Newbern says. The operators of these units do not need pilot training, they are part of small units of Special Forces operators or Marines where everyone in the unit is cross-trained, he adds.

The Aerovironment family of small UAVs has a common controller system -- used with their Puma AE, Wasp, Swift, and Raven UAVs, Newbern says. It is a modular system that consists of a hand controller for flying the aircraft, a rugged laptop, RF transceiver unit, all plugged into a controller box that is about the “size of two packs of cigarettes,” Newbern says. Aerovironment makes all the components except the laptop, which is a Panasonic Toughbook, he adds.

One operator controls the aircraft with a controller unit that consists of a display streaming video from the aircraft’s cameras and knobs/dials for controlling the aircraft, Newbern says. Another operator uses the laptop to gather the intelligence data downloaded from the aircraft for analysis and dissemination to other nodes in the battlefield network, he adds.

The whole ground control system (GCS) can be carried in the warfighter’s ruck sack, Newbern says. The GCS without the laptop is just under 8 pounds, he adds.

Conceivably it could be operated by one person, but two operators is the preferred approach, Newbern notes. The GCS can also be embedded in remote locations as a command center that monitors provides the same payload monitoring capabilities of operators in the field, he adds.

The controllers for each Aerovironment UAV are very similar, but do differentiate when it comes to payload control, Newbern says. On the Puma the main payload tool is the mechanical gimbal, while it will be a different electro-optical device on the Raven, he continues. The GCS software recognizes which payload needs to be controlled and adapts to it, Newbern adds.

To improve ease of use, warfighters have asked Aerovironment designers to do something about “specification creep,” Newbern says. Over they years the requirements for what operators must have on their displays at all times has created a very cluttered view, he explains.

Therefore Aerovironment engineers are working on decluttering the screen, bringing it back to a more simple display that enables the individual operator to pick click on different windows to view what they want to look at, Newbern continues.

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