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Small UAV Payloads Wrestle with SWaP Challenges

Although slower than their Large UAV counterparts to embrace standard form factor boards, Small UAV and Small UAV Payload developers are starting to look to box-level and board-level solutions that are able to meet their stringent size, weight and power requirements.


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  • UAV
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All branches of the DoD are investing heavily in UAV development and procurement. Within the Small UAV segment of that market the variety of platforms and volume of systems scheduled for purchase far exceeds that of medium and Large UAVs. This class of UAVs faces unique challenges as system developers cope with size, weight and power (SWaP) trade-offs while attempting to cram more functionality and autonomy into Small UAV payload systems.

In contrast to the larger classes of UAVs, Small UAVs and their payloads have been slower to embrace standard form factor boards. Backplanes crammed with VME and CompactPCI boards are well entrenched aboard platforms like the Global Hawk and Predator, but in Small UAVs the use of standard boards is far less consistent. Form factors like PC/104, COM Express and others are often used in the development phase, but few get deployed in the end product. That’s beginning to change as Small UAV system developers seek to outfit UAVs with more mission autonomy and more powerful sensors. Meanwhile, complete compact box-level subsystems–often designed for a special payload function–are also having an impact in this market space.

One example of a Small UAV design that relies on PC/104 technology is the Aerosonde (Figure 1), a small, low-cost UAV platform designed by a company of the same name. Aerosonde has been developing small UAVs for military, paramilitary and civilian missions for more than a decade. A typical Aerosonde payload includes a SatCom PC/104 processor card. This card applies selectable wavelet compression to images captured by the UAV’s camera. The processor then adds aircraft metadata from an interface to the UAV’s avionics computer, and controls data transmission between satellite and ground control station.

A recent example of a function-specific box-level payload is the NanoSAR, a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) codeveloped by ImSAR and Insitu. UAV developer Insitu agreed to be purchased by its partner Boeing Integrated Defense Systems last month. Earlier this year, Boeing and its partners successfully flight-tested NanoSAR, the world’s smallest Synthetic Aperture Radar, aboard the ScanEagle UAV. During the 1.5-hour flight the ScanEagle, with ImSAR’s NanoSAR payload installed, completed several passes over the target area at various altitudes and ranges. The targets included vehicles, structures and corner reflectors. Data collection on board the ScanEagle worked as planned, and SAR imagery was later created on the ground. The next step in flight testing will be to create imagery aboard the UAV in real time. The NanoSAR is a 2-pound system approximately the size of a shoebox. In contrast, the weight of standard SARs ranges from 50 to 200 pounds. Thanks to the reduction in weight, a UAV like the ScanEagle can carry both an electro-optical or infrared camera and a SAR payload at the same time.

Mobile UAV Video Capture

On the ground control side, Small UAVs have a nice advantage over their larger UAV counter-parts. Many small, tactical UAVs don’t require a complete Ground Station. Usually some form of laptop system will suffice. Along just such lines is L-3 Communications VideoScout-MC, a highly portable video exploitation and management system with an integrated L/C- or L/S-band receiver to directly receive video and telemetry data from manned or UAV systems.

VideoScout-MC can receive data from L-band systems, such as the Dragon Eye, Raven and Pointer; S-band systems, including the ScanEagle and Silver Fox; and C-band systems, including the Predator, Shadow, Hunter and Litening Pod. Once the video has been received, warfighters can add “knowledge” to the captured video by annotating, extracting images, creating short clips and disseminating video anywhere across the battle space.

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems
St. Louis, MO.
(314) 232-0232.

Bingen, WA

L-3 Communications
Reston, VA.
(703) 434-4000.