Remotely piloted aircraft, the vernacular used by the military for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), now are widely accepted as the military’s sensor data-gathering system of choice. The vehicles increasingly are being used to capture intelligence data over longer periods and as weapons systems capable of precision targeting. These aircraft also support the warfighter’s insatiable need for beyond-line-of-sight communications without putting soldiers in the line of fire.
Many industry watchers anticipate that as the number of UAV missions increase, so will the need for greater capabilities, larger fleets and ever-higher bandwidth requirements to support the military’s ISR needs. “Remotely piloted aircraft today are a big part of the Air Force’s airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission,” says Col. Charles Cynamon, chief of the MilSatCom Advanced Concepts Division. His division, part of the Space and Missile Systems Center, is charged with developing the future satellite communications architecture that will ensure the continued connectivity of the Air Force’s remote assets as they are transitioned to military frequencies. Today, remotely piloted aircraft rely typically on narrow-band satellite communications for command and control — most often UHF-band or L-band — when they are beyond line of sight. Sensor data relay, on the other hand, is almost exclusively reliant on Ku-band communications and mostly commercially-based Ku-band satcom.” Cynamon hopes to change that reliance for good reason. “There are two elements of concern. One is the cost to lease that capability and there is a limited supply of Ku-band satcom. The other thing is that the data rates and throughput you can get through sensor data is then limited by the size of transponders you can lease from the commercial community. “
He points out that platforms like Global Hawk and future upgrades will have significantly higher data requirements than a typical transponder from the commercial market. Cynamon says that his group is planning for data rates similar to those on the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system. “One of the things we are looking at is the capabilities WGS would need to have to accommodate an upgraded Global Hawk with a military Ka-band terminal on it,” he says. “We’re looking at the number of apertures we would need to have to cover these long-endurance missions.” Cynamon insists that the commercial satellite sector will have a role to play due to the massive bandwidth requirements that remotely piloted aircraft will demand in the future. The Space and Missile Systems Center recently awarded several contracts to satellite manufacturing firms such as Boeing and Orbital Sciences to explore if there are other alternatives for providing coverage to remotely piloted aircraft other than upgrading WGS.
The versatility and persistence of these remotely piloted aircraft are well proven, as seen by the growth in the number of flight hours per mission and sheer number of systems. According to NSR, which has been tracking the UAV market for seven years, the number of aircraft has more than doubled from 500 to 1,000, and the average number of flight hours per mission has increased from 5,000 in 1996 to 109,000 hours in 2005.
The U.S. Department of Defense published in its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap that as of October 2008, coalition unmanned aircraft systems (hand-launched) have flown 500,000 flight hours in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. In April 2010, the Predator series, the “flagship” family of the military’s fleet of remotely piloted aircraft, surpassed 1 million flight hours. To date, more than 470 Predator series of aircraft have been delivered to U.S. and allied forces, with active aircraft clocking more than 35,000 hours a month, says Christopher Ames, director of strategic development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. “Every second of every day there are more than 50 of our aircraft airborne worldwide. Clearly, the value of unmanned aircraft systems has blossomed tremendously in the last several years. They are true game changers in the military sense and are proving equally valuable in non-military missions,” says Ames, a retired Naval rear admiral and pilot who joined General Atomics in 2006 after retiring from military service.
“If you look at the number of UAVs for pure surveillance and look at the mission in Afghanistan, it’s grown in terms of mission, in terms of importance and in terms of budget,” says Jose del Rosario, senior analyst with NSR. He believes during the next 10 years, UAVs will become smaller relative to current-sized Predators and will be able to carry heavier payloads and accommodate smaller and lower profile satellite antennas.
Claude Rousseau, another NSR analyst, foresees UAVs being a necessity not only in open conflicts but also as allied forces pull out of hotspots. “There will be more need for UAVs than ever before to continue surveying the area, but also the local authorities will use it as a tool for military and civil applications,” he says.
The U.S. has already seen the utility of these remotely piloted aircraft for civil and emergency response needs. According to Ames, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has relied on the Predator B aircraft to patrol U.S. borders since 2005. They also provide maritime surveillance over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and will soon expand their reach to the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. “They’re a dominant force on the border,” he says. Within disaster relief operations, these aircraft provide needed reconnaissance following flooding and earthquakes. Airborne firefighting aircraft use data from unmanned aircraft to know where to direct their finite resources to battle forest fires.
NSR forecasts that UAV units will grow from 870 units in 2009 to more than 3,100 in-service units in 2019, representing a compound annual growth rate of 13.2 percent. Some 230 units will be added to government fleets each year. NSR’s assessment is consistent with the U.S. military budget for 2012, which includes a five-year cost-cutting plan that will divert about $70 billion back into new purchases over the next five years with a focus on adding additional UAVs to its arsenal.
Cost to Maintain UAVs a Concern
While remotely piloted aircraft are only a fraction of the cost of manned combat aircraft (the price tag for a Predator B (Reaper) with sensors is about $10 million-$12 million, says Ames, compared with fighter aircraft that cost on average more than $100 million), managing costs of UAVs is on the minds of Pentagon officials. Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of unmanned warfare at the office of the secretary of defense, said at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference held in Washington, D.C. in February that manufacturers need to start considering how to provide better value for UAV dollars being spent. “As long as unmanned systems continue to support the war fighter … this technology area will compete very well in the future in Defense Department budgets … even in a fairly tight fiscal environment,” he said, adding that officials will be scrutinizing and challenging industry to look at ways to lower life cycle expense of maintaining and operating these aircraft.
Cost concerns aside, investments in UASs will continue in the United States and by governments around the globe. During the next 10 years, worldwide spending on the vehicle will almost double from the current level of $5.9 billion to $11.3 billion annually and total more than $94 billion, according to estimates by the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense market research firm. The United States will account for 77 percent of the worldwide research, development, test and evaluation spending, Teal Group predicts.
Remotely piloted aircraft remain a big budget priority within the U.S. armed forces. The U.S. Army invested $1.2 billion into UAS programs in fiscal 2010 and requested another $1.3 billion for 2011. Its flagship UAS aircraft, Gray Eagle (formerly called Sky Warrior), features a 56-foot wingspan, can reach altitudes of up to 29,000 feet and stay on mission for 30 hours. Manufacturer general atomics has delivered more than 60 Predator- and Sky Warrior-class aircraft, including 40 Gray Eagles, to date.
This aircraft, says Ames, has tremendous redundancy, uses a heavy-fuel engine (the same fuel used for ground vehicles such as tanks) and is a trailblazer for automatic takeoff and landing. “The Army has executed more than 1,500 flawless auto takeoff and landings,” Ames says, noting that the trained flight operators in the ground station that operates the Gray Eagle simply have to push a screen and the aircraft will takeoff on its own. This compares with operators of other UAVs without this feature where the operators emulate the action of takeoff using stick and throttle and rudders. “More and more customers are recognizing the advantages of auto takeoff and landing and have the contracted for the capability in their aircraft,” Ames says.
The Air Force has taken delivery of nearly 60 Predator B (Reaper) aircraft to date and ordered 24 more from General Atomics in February. This version, the MQ-9, This aircraft is much bigger than the original Predator aircraft, weighing in at 10,500 pounds, compared with 2,300 pounds of its predecessor. According to Ames, “it doubles almost everything on the Predator.” Specifically, the latest version can climb to 50,000 feet, stay airborne unfueled for 30 hours, fly at speeds of 240 KTAS (knots true airspeed) and has a 3,000-pound payload capacity. “This is truly a multi-mission aircraft. It can be a pure ISR asset, it can perform armed ISR — able to find, fix, track, assess, identify and attack all by itself — or that same airframe can be quickly transformed into a maritime surveillance aircraft,” says Ames. “When armed, it’s equivalent to a combat-loaded F-16.”
New Technology Adds To Bandwidth Needs
In addition to growing its fleet, the Air Force plans to equip the MQ-9 Reaper with a new wide-area surveillance sensor known as Gorgon Stare. Known as “an all-seeing eye,” Gorgon Stare will be able to see an entire city through a cluster of up to 12 cameras. Developed by Sierra Nevada, the mega-sensor provides imagery from five electro-optical cameras and four infrared cameras in a single pod to support day and night surveillance operations. The Air Force has said publicly that it will field the system by April, though a leaked report in January claimed that the sensor failed to perform during flight tests at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
The Air Force is the only military arm investing in new capabilities to extend the performance and reach of remotely piloted aircraft. The Navy is seeking an unmanned, carrier-launched surveillance and strike aircraft, and General Atomics is developing a UAV that can launch and recover from the deck of a carrier, says Ames. Its planned aircraft, dubbed Sea Avenger, would be able to perform reconnaissance for up to 600 miles from the vessel, with the ability to stay on mission for 12 hours without needing refueling.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded an $89.3 million contract to Boeing for the development of a light UAV as part of the Vulture 2 program. Boeing Phantom Works, the company’s advanced R&D arm, is leading the prototype development of what the company calls SolarEagle. “The vision is to build a multi-year system that’s clearly an order of magnitude beyond anything flying today,” says Pat O’Neil, director, High Altitude Long Endurance Program at Boeing Phantom Works. O’Neil says the aircraft would harness solar energy and store it on board to get the aircraft through the night. Boeing Phantom Works also has designed a vehicle management system to ensure the reliability for multi-year operations in the upper atmosphere. “With these multi-year upper atmosphere platforms, we see a real compelling opportunity for communication nodes where you might have the ability to complement your orbiting systems for communications and satcom by pushing data communications through these platforms,” O’Neil says there is a clear opportunity for persistent ISR, where users could loiter from any region of the Earth. “You’re offering a pseudo-satellite that can reposition and can carry 1,000 pounds of communications equipment or sensor payloads. There are all kinds of missions you can envision,” he says.
“System reliability is critical, as the extreme duration in a single sortie of a system using Vulture technology does not allow repair or replacement,” says Dan Newman, DARPA’s Vulture program manager. “An aircraft with this extreme persistence in a single platform will allow many of the missions currently performed by conventional aircraft. The resulting affordability changes the calculus regarding missions currently possible but unaffordable with conventional aircraft,” he says. According to Newman, there has been significant Pentagon interest in the capability of Vulture to enable affordable persistence. “The program is investigating a range of applications, including communications relay and a wide range of ISR missions.”
Boeing Phantom Works is on track to do a 30-day endurance flight test of the aircraft in early 2014. Boeing plans to fly a nearly full-scale, 400-foot wingspan aircraft and demonstrate the solar collection and energy storage systems on board. More near term, the company plans to flight test Phantom Eye, another hydrogen-powered high-altitude long endurance UAV, this summer. It is capable of maintaining altitude for up to four days while carrying a 450-pound payload.
Within Boeing Unmanned Airborne Systems, customer demand for the ScanEagle UAV remains strong. The aircraft recently surpassed 400,000 hours of flight operations, making it one of the most prolific ISR assets in operation today, says Vic Sweberg, Boeing Unmanned Airborne Systems director. “UAVs are strategically important to Boeing, because our customers are finding them extremely productive in support of their missions. Looking into the future, we see UAVs playing a prominent role not only in defense operations but also in numerous civil and commercial applications.”
Sweberg also expects the A160T Hummingbird, which holds the world record for endurance of an unmanned rotorcraft (18.7 hours) to be as popular with customers as ScanEagle. That’s good news to Tachyon Networks, a developer of aXiom satellite solutions for fixed, portable and COTM applications. The firm specializes in handling the extreme data rates needed to transmit video. CEO and CTO Peter Carides, a former France Telecom executive who oversaw the satellite and wireless business unit, has ambitions to serve both the UAV and rotary wing markets with his company’s video throughput capabilities. “There are many more helicopters than conventional aircraft,” Carides says, adding that on the UAV side, “we think this is going to become increasingly more prevalent.” His company will introduce in early 2012 a software implementation that will allow satellite signals to pass with very little interference through the blades of a helicopter’s rotary wing.
Also by the end of the year, Tachyon will offer high-bandwidth terminals that will support 3-D HD on unmanned aircraft, including offering speeds of 45 to 60 megabits per second upload for programs such as Predator and Global Hawk. Carides says the 3-D capability positions his company perfectly for advanced sensors like Gorgon Stare.
“It’s evident we’re going in the right direction. We knew that there were 3-D HD sensors coming along, and we decided to make that the base we’d go for,” he says.