Experts: advanced sensors are key enablers for fighting UAVs of the future

Sept. 1, 2001
Remotely controlled or autonomous military systems — from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) — are gaining support within the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) as new computer and sensor technologies combine to increase capabilities while decreasing size and cost.

By J.R. Wilson

BALTIMORE — Remotely controlled or autonomous military systems — from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) — are gaining support within the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) as new computer and sensor technologies combine to increase capabilities while decreasing size and cost.

The future Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) from Boeing is to be the vanguard of a new generation of autonomous vehicles able to take the fight directly to the enemy.
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Leaders of the military services are looking at unmanned systems to handle increasing numbers of "dirty, dangerous, and dull" jobs, which has the potential to free increasingly scarce, expensively trained and far less expendable human experts to deal with more complex tasks.

"In my judgment, it is now time to plan for a full spectrum of unmanned systems for our naval services," newly appointed U.S. Navy Secretary Gordon England told the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems 2001 conference in Baltimore last July.

"Conceptually, we have tended to limit applications to those that use unmanned vehicles as an augmentation to manned systems," England told conference attendees. "We should reverse our thinking and focus on unmanned systems that are augmented by manned sys-tems. This will lead to a different construct or paradigm for future designs."

One of the more controversial planned future applications of this technology is the armed robotic system, such as the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) now being developed for a joint Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)/Air Force Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) program.

Building the UCAV are engineers at the Boeing Phantom Works in St. Louis. Under the 42-month, $131 million cost-shared effort, Boeing engineers will design, fabricate, and flight test a vehicle to demonstrate whether a UCAV can effectively and affordably strike targets and suppress enemy air defenses.

Experts from the U.S. Navy, through their office of expeditionary warfare, also are involved in that effort; they plan to develop a corresponding sea-based naval vehicle (UCAV-N).

"Quite likely, we could now be designing our last manned combat aircraft," England says. He points out that Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, himself a former secretary of the Navy, proposes making one-third of all deep strike aircraft unmanned by 2010 and one-third of all ground combat vehicles unmanned by 2015.

Advanced sensors"Consider that many of today's weapon systems are designed to detect, engage, and destroy targets at very long ranges beyond visual detection," England says. "Utilizing advanced sensors, digital signal processing, and general-purpose computing, they track and compute the firing envelope for smart weapon deployment ... It certainly appears realistic for an unmanned system to soon accomplish these same missions without the cumbersome and expensive life support, hotel functions, and other survivability features associated with a manned system."

Brig. Gen. Trey Obering III, director of the Air Force's information dominance programs, says UCAVs will benefit from the experience gained from today's leading-edge UAV programs, such as Predator and Global Hawk.

"The emergence of more capable sensors is a key to integrating manned and unmanned systems into a single operational capability," Trey told the conference. "The Air Force of the future will take full advantage of the attributes of both manned and unmanned platforms to achieve our three basic capabilities of global vigilance, global reach and global power."

Trey pointed out that UAVs are not to replace humans. "Manned aviation brings unsurpassed real-time decision making, situation awareness, discernment and nuanced understanding to military operations," he said. "UAVs are complementary, overcoming human limitations; unmanned aviation's unique attributes can bring constant presence, inhuman endurance, and G-tolerance, immunity to chem/bio threats, and fearless attack operations against all target sets."

Obering says the Boeing X-45A program is to "demonstrate the technical feasibility for a UCAV system to effectively and affordably prosecute 21st century lethal strike missions. The initial operational role for the UCAV is a 'first day of the war' force enabler that complements a strike package.

"Our goal is to acquire platforms optimized for their environment and their mission. The UAV complement is a dream-come-true for air power force structure planners when the missions are the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous — niches integral to many aerospace tasks. The combined manned/unmanned force will frustrate and defeat all challengers to air superiority like never before in history."

Initial UCAV battle management simulations were completed in June, with first flight of the initial AV1 demonstrator set for late fall and multi-vehicle flights during the winter of 2002-03.

A production UCAV would need to cost no more than one-third the unit price of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) — still in development — with much lower life-cycle costs, says Air Force Col. Mike Leahy, DARPA's UCAV ATD program manger. But unmanned does not mean autonomous, he noted; there would always be a human battle manager in the loop who uses cooperative targeting and information fusion to select and attack targets.

Limited role for COTSResearchers have already determined a significant factor in the development of future fighting UAVs, he adds, one that runs counter to the goals of most modern military procurement programs: "Some of it is not as COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) as we thought it might be."

That increases pressure on systems developers, England points out. Unmanned systems cannot be high-value assets, he maintains. "We need to constrain the cost of these systems so we can buy them in quantities and field a force that will make a decisive difference," Leahy says. He admits that UAVs are "becoming very expensive. To succeed with unmanned systems, we cannot merely shift this cost from manpower to systems; rather, it is imperative that we design and field capable and more cost-effective unmanned systems. If we have a significant economic incentive to field unmanned systems, then there will be greater emphasis for their design and production."

Acquisition cost is only one of several important considerations in moving the U.S. military further into the unmanned arena, however. Such systems also need to be fully interoperable in multi-service and multi-national joint warfighting environments. That, England says, will require the development of a wide range of interoperability standards for the flow of data between manned and unmanned systems as well as operational command and control centers.

He specifically called on private business, not government, to set new standards for UAV interoperability. "The government is the organization of last resort in bringing about these standards," he says. "In my own experience, it was industry associations that, in many cases, developed the MIL-STD 1553 data bus, the MIL-STD 1750 processor, the MIL-STD 1760 stores interface, and the like. Different industrial associations that reflect new technologies and new companies will need to develop these standards."

A potential drawback to heavy reliance on unmanned assets will be the loss of a well-trained and highly motivated human force, England warns. The only solution there is to sufficient money for research, as well as to improve business practices, so systems engineers can insert new technology quickly into the force to match or exceed anything in a potential adversary's arsenal.

"Industry needs to be aggressive in understanding the broad nature of our military requirements. In my judgment, push needs to be stronger than pull," he told the AUVSI conference. "You have a much deeper awareness of what can be accomplished with unmanned systems than the personnel who determine requirements for our military services."

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