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Small UAVs Bulk up Sensor and Processing Capabilities

Leveraging advances in integrated electronics and computing, Small UAVs, along with their payloads and control gear, are gaining improved warfighting capabilities.


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The flight control, mission control and communications gear aboard Small UAVs-face some of the most rigorous size, weight and power restrictions. Selecting the right embedded electronics and embedded computers in those systems becomes a make or break decision. Here the popular term "SWaP" (size, weight and power) take on a whole different level of urgency. This category of UAVs roughly defined as "smaller-than Predator-sized" encompasses a variety of platforms. The main DoD-funded among those include the RQ-7 Shadow, RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma and RQ-21 Blackjack Unmanned Aircraft Systems as programs of record. These aircraft provide organic Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Target Acquisition (RSTA) capabilities and are embedded in maneuver formations capable of providing crucial information to the ground commander.

With hundreds of thousands of flight hours accrued, many of these UAVs have been mission-critical workhorses in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile new small UAV platforms and upgraded versions of existing platforms are in the process of testing and development. Most of the early designs of Small UAVs and their payloads didn't much embrace the idea of open architecture and standard form factor boards. In some cases form factors like PC/104, COM Express and others were used in the development phase, but those often didn't make it to the deployment phase of the UAV. But over time that's changed as Small UAV system developers strive to add more mission autonomy and more powerful sensors. Meanwhile off-the-shelf compact box-level subsystems typically designed for a special payload function are also gaining mindshare. These box level solutions make sense as Small UAV system developers try to combine multiple functions into a single payload.

Upgrades budgeted for Small UAVs

For the proposed DoD fiscal 2017 budget not much is expect to change in whatever final Defense budget the Congress approves. In the Small UAV category the FY 2017 budget request calls for funding upgrades to system hardware and payloads for the RQ-7 Shadow. It also procures upgrades and provides training and contractor logistics support for the RQ-11 Raven. Procurement is also provided for RQ-20 Puma systems for the USMC and SOCOM. A total of 8 systems (base and OCO) of the RQ-21 Blackjack will be procured along with contractor logistics support for that aircraft.

For its part, the Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System, made by Textron Systems Unmanned Systems, achieved a key milestone this year surpassing one million total flight hours-the only unmanned aircraft system of its size to accomplish that so far (Figure 1). According to Textron, more than 85 percent of these one million flight hours occurred during combat operations. In April the U.S. Army awarded Textron a $116.5 million contract to an additional 24 RQ-7B V2 Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (TUAS) upgrades. Deliveries of the 24 systems are expected to begin in 2018.

Figure 1
In April the Shadow Tactical UAV surpassed one million total flight hours—the only unmanned aircraft system to reach that milestone. 85 percent of those hours were combat missions.

The contract furthers the U.S. Army's Shadow V2 block upgrade program, under which Textron Systems acts as lead system integrator, and aircraft and ground control station original equipment manufacturer. The Shadow V2 is an all-digital, modern system, optimized for new multi-mission, single-sortie profiles and manned-unmanned teaming. The Shadow V2 also includes a high-bandwidth, encrypted data link that enables the aircraft to carry payloads ranging from high-definition video to secure control for prosecution missions. The Army is currently teaming the Shadow V2 system with its Apache helicopter fleet for scouting missions within its combat aviation brigades.

Small UAV vs Vehicle Target

Further enhancing technology aboard the Shadow UAV, this summer Textron Systems and Thales announced the successful testing of the Fury lightweight precision guided glide weapon from the Shadow UAV against static vehicle targets. The Fury was tested from a Textron Systems' Shadow TUAS at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona on April 29. During the testing, the Fury was released from 8,000 feet altitude, conducted a GPS guided fly-out maneuver and transitioned to the Semi-Active Laser (SAL) guided terminal engagement, directly striking a static vehicle target. Textron Systems and Thales began development of the Fury weapon system in 2014. And in October Textron rolled out a new member of its of Ground Control Station (GCS) products, the Synturian.

The Synturian family of products includes two main product lines: Synturian Control and Synturian Remote. Synturian Control is a multi-platform, multi-vehicle, multi-domain control system that enhances collaboration and dissemination of information. Synturian Remote includes mobile, network-strengthened tools that enhance situational awareness through timely information and collaboration. Both Synturian Control and Synturian Remote package these capabilities into small, lightweight hardware form factors that are scalable based on customer needs. Textron Systems is actively integrating the Synturian family of products with its own unmanned aircraft systems, including the Shadow Tactical UAV and the AerosondeTM Small UAV.

Wide Area UAV ISR

Another tried and true Small UAV platform is the ScanEagle made by Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary. In May the company announced a collaboration with Hood Technologies and Sentient to incorporate the ViDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging) payload into its fleet of unmanned systems, beginning with the ScanEagle UAV. ViDAR is a wide area autonomous detection system for electro-optic imagery in the maritime domain (Figure 2). In addition to cueing ScanEagle's primary camera turret, the payload gives operators who typically must rely on larger, more expensive aircraft to detect objects in the ocean a smaller, more cost-effective solution. The software that runs the ViDAR payload was developed in Australia by Sentient Vision Systems, and was built into a ScanEagle payload by Hood Technologies of Hood River, OR.

Figure 2
The ScanEagle UAV’s ViDAR performs maritime search tasks to determine the presence of and locate an object. ViDAR is similar to RADAR, but uses vision rather than radio waves.

ViDAR fits a modular slice on ScanEagle that comprises a large backplane digital video camera that continuously scans the ocean in a 180-degree arc in front of the air vehicle. Sentient's ViDAR software then autonomously detects any object on the surface of the ocean, providing the ground control station with an image and location coordinate of each object detected in real time. The primary sensor can then be cross-cued to the object by simply clicking on the image.

A newer kid on the Small UAV block is the RQ-21A Blackjack, also built by Insitu. RQ-21A has significantly larger payload mass, volume and power than other small UAS currently being used in theater. The system includes electro-optic and mid-wave infrared sensors with a laser rangefinder and infrared marker. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) awarded the STUAS Engineering Manufacturing Development contract to Insitu in 2010 to begin the development of RQ-21A Blackjack, a variant of the company's Integrator unmanned system. The program achieved Milestone C in 2013, delivered the first LRIP system in 2014, and achieved initial operational capability in January. In June NAVAIR awarded Insitu the Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) Lot V contract for RQ-21A Blackjack. The $71 million follow-on contract award includes six LRIP systems with options for two additional LRIP systems. The contract also includes an option year for nine Full Rate Production (FRP) systems.

Payloads for Puma UAV

The Puma UAV made by AeroVironment got its share of payload upgrades this year. In May the company unveiled its new Mantis i45 electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) gimbal payload designed for the Puma AE (All Environment) UAV. According to AeroVironment, Size, weight and power (SWaP) also were critical design considerations. A payload shell similar to that of the standard Puma AE payload houses the Mantis i45 and installs in an identical manner onto the Puma AE platform. The Mantis i45 empowers operators to identify targets more accurately and with greater detail while operating even farther away from the target (Figure 3). The higher resolution imagery also aids in target analysis, positive identification and better enables operators to identify threats to friendly forces.

Figure 3
The Mantis i45 EO/IR gimbal payload on the Puma AE UAV lets users target more accurately and with greater detail while operating farther away from the target.

With an advanced suite of sensors, including ultra-high-resolution EO and IR imagers, key features of the Mantis i45 include: dual-color cameras (wide and narrow views); improved IR imagery; new low-light camera; high-power illuminator; 50-times zoom in EO; optional on-board storage of high definition video and high-resolution stills; and a dedicated on-board image processor. The AeroVironment Mantis i45 also lends itself to a level of customization never before seen in a gimbal this size while still being compatible with portable Puma AE systems.

Tested Aboard Destroyer

In other Puma news, this summer the U.S. Navy tested and deployed the RQ-20B Puma UAV aboard a Flight I Guided Missile Destroyer (DDG Class). Some of these exercises included the use of AeroVironment's fully autonomous system to recover the aircraft aboard a ship. Following completion of a Puma AE intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission, the AeroVironment Precision Recovery System provides for the autonomous on-board recovery of the aircraft, without interrupting the ship's operations. Because the Puma AE is also designed to land and float in water, operators can choose to recover it from the ocean, should mission requirements dictate.

The Precision Recovery System occupies a small footprint and can be managed and operated by members of a ship's crew, as opposed to requiring external contractors. It is transported in tactical packaging that can be hand-carried aboard and readily transferred from one ship to another. The DoD recently established the designation RQ-20B for the block 2 Puma AE small UAS. The block 2 Puma AE system includes a more powerful and lighter propulsion system, lighter and stronger airframe, long endurance battery, precision inertial navigation system and an improved user interface.

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Textron Systems
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