Revolutionary Changes Spark New Era in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
By John Likakis
Military planners and warfighters are exploring ways to best utilize relatively new players in the modern combat environment: drones. They go by a passel of different names: unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), unmanned aerial system (UAS), remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), and autonomous unmanned aircraft system (AUAS), to name but a few. To the general public, all fall under the great catchall term “drones.” And while this term encompasses radically different systems, it does serve as a useful shorthand and makes things clearer by being less specific. So, for our purposes, we will call them drones.
For decades now, drones have been a part of the battlespace. By1995, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator had joined the U.S. Air Force inventory. The Predator was itself an outgrowth of the earlier GNAT drone that General Atomics developed for the Central Intelligence Agency in the mid-1980s, which itself was a follow-on to Leading Systems’s Amber drone. (General Atomics eventually acquired Leading Systems.)
The Predator flew with a turboprop engine that provided top performance and supplied plenty of onboard power for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads. Advances in electronics have since evolved the Predator and, more recently, the MQ-9 Reaper into outstanding ISR platforms. As the battle against terrorist groups has progressed, arming such drones has made them not only efficient in spotting but also in attacking targets ranging from base camps to single individuals.
Other platforms also have benefited from technological leaps, including Boeing’s Global Hawk and the derivatives it has spawned.In many ways, changes in technology are both expanding and redefining the very nature of the roles and missions of drones.
The early development of drones pales in comparison to the leaps made in the last dozen years. Primarily due to the electronics revolution, as well as advances in materials, newer models of drones being introduced are far smaller, while becoming ever more capable.
No company has taken the “get small” concept to the battlespace more emphatically than AeroVironment. Founded by aviation pioneer Paul MacCready back in 1971, this California-based company has been working with some of the most advanced electronics and materials to produce truly astonishing drones.
AeroVironment has a line of hand-launched drones that are a foot soldier’s best friend. These units can provide battlefield tactical reconnaissance to troops, effectively giving them on-demand eyes in the sky so that they can look over the next ridgeline or down into hostile compounds. Steady advances in sensor packages are continually increasing the capabilities and effectiveness of systems such as the Raven-B, Puma, and Wasp.
The Raven-B, for example, has a wingspan of less than 5 feet, and launching it involves one soldier throwing it like a javelin. A gimbal-mounted, electro-optical camera in the nose streams back clear, stabilized, visible light or infrared images. Its electric-motor power system renders it nearly silent, and a haze-gray finish makes it very difficult to see against most sky backgrounds.
AeroVironment is also working on a project for the U.S. Navy. Dubbed “Blackwing,” this small drone launches from a submarine. Once in the air, a Blackwing can perform a variety of functions. In addition to traditional ISR, it can coordinate command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3-I) between an array of naval assets. Company documents indicate that a Blackwing can perform a C3-I mission between the launching submarine, manned surface vessels, and a wide range of “other autonomous vehicles,” which can include everything from sonobuoys to mobile sensor and attack units. (The Navy calls this “cross-domain” coordination.)
In one package, a Blackwing can gather reconnaissance information, relay it back to the launching submarine, or share it among other assets. Thus, it effectively serves as a communications and data relay among land, air, and sea units. This versatile UAV will be deployed on both attack submarines and ballistic missile subs.
The acronym “UCAV” stands for unmanned combat aerial vehicle. This concept has been explored by many nations for decades. As of this writing, there are no fewer than two dozen UCAV aircraft that have advanced to at least the level of technology demonstrator. These are under development by countries ranging from India and China to Italy and Iran.
The U.S. Navy has also been pursuing unmanned aerial systems for decades. For many Navy missions, drones fit the bill. After all, why send a man where a machine can do the job? The Navy explored a stealth concept with the Boeing X-45A technology demonstrator. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAV took the concept many steps farther, operating in nearly every flight regime from in-flight refueling to launching and landing on an aircraft carrier. Although the two prototypes were slated to be retired and become museum exhibits, they have been retained to help further develop airframes that will eventually become deployed UCAVs.
To this end, Northrop Grumman has been doing intensive research in autonomous aircraft development. The challenges are daunting. An operational and autonomous UCAV must carry enough computing power to fly the vehicle under any imaginable conditions, along with a sensor package that provides the vehicle’s “brain” with information about threats and targets all around it — enemy aircraft or destroyers, tanks or other ground transports, troops, or even individuals
The drone must be capable of detecting and identifying such threats and targets — alone or in combination — and decide whether to and how best to attack. It has to do all of that while not mistakenly attacking friendly forces. And it has to be both commandable by U.S. forces and impervious to hijacking by the enemy. When such a vehicle is finally deployed, it will carry the acronym UCLASS for unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike.
Of course, Northrop Grumman already has another UCAV deployed with the fleet. The MQ-8C Fire Scout is an autonomous helicopter that can carry a variety of payloads and sensors. In service since 2010, the MQ-8B Fire Scout has been used in operations ranging from drug interdiction to battling pirates off the east coast of Africa to flying combat ISR missions over Afghanistan, Libya, and other trouble spots.
There are currently two Fire Scout variants. The smaller MQ-8B has deployed on multiple frigates, and is currently in service on a littoral combat ship (LCS). The MQ-8C version is the U.S. Navy’s next-generation autonomous helicopter and is based on the Bell 407 civilian helicopter, which allows for more than double the range and endurance, and more than triples the Fire Scout’s payload. Both helicopters have the ability to take off, operate, and land autonomously, and any aviation-capable ship or landing zone can serves as an operations base. The most recent set of upgrades, scheduled to be fielded this year, will see Fire Scouts equipped for mine detection in coastal waters (designated COBRA for COastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis).
Northrop Grumman also produces a UAS it calls the Bat. Powered by a Hirth heavy-fuel engine that runs on JP-8 jet fuel, the Bat launches from a catapult and lands by flying into a net. Available in two sizes, a Bat can carry out a wide range of missions, depending on the electronics packages installed. Its design allows the payload to be changed or updated quickly, and the vehicle’s spacious interior enables it to carry a host of different sensors and, in some configurations, electronic warfare packages. Northrop Grumman says the Bat can be used for everything from ISR to target acquisition to communications relay. And, with its relatively small size (the maximum wingspan is only 14 feet) and its blended-body flying-wing design, this drone is difficult to detect both visually and electronically.
Off the Shelf
Perhaps the most remarkable revolution in the world of drones is the explosion in consumer-level, remote-control vehicles. Less than a decade ago, radio-control aircraft and helicopters were comparatively expensive, challenging to learn to fly, and extremely limited in terms of payload, range, and adaptability. But the advent of smart phones changed everything.
Nearly all smart phones sold today contain an array of solid-state MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) gyros. Typically employing microscopic vibrating crystals, MEMS gyros let your smart phone know which way is up, which way your phone is moving, and how rapidly your phone is accelerating. Most smart phones also have tiny receivers that use Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to track the phone’s position and altitude (some smart phones can track thirteen or more satellites at once). These two pieces of technology have shrunk in physical size at a rapid rate, and the ramp-up in production to hundreds of millions of units per year has brought prices down to the pennies-per-unit range. Meanwhile, the performance and accuracy of both the gyros and the GPS units are phenomenal.
Those MEMS gyros and tiny GPS receivers have made off-the-shelf radio-control drones and aircraft exceedingly easy to fly, ubiquitous enough to be sold in toy shops around the world, and now terribly useful to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda. The Islamic State, in particular, has been using off-the-shelf, quadcopter-style drones and radio-control aircraft for everything from tactical reconnaissance and fire control to dropping small explosives, such as grenades and even light mortar rounds.
Consumer quadcopters, in particular, have proven to be a thorny problem for warfighters. For example, the DJI Mavic quadcopter retails for around $1,000. It comes with a 4K high-resolution camera that can couple to a variety of displays (though the most common is a smart phone). The transmitter that controls the Mavic uses a frequency-hopping protocol that makes it difficult to jam. And the drone’s small size makes it almost impossible to see or hear once it gets above 500 feet or so. Its operational radius is a bit more than 3 miles. So, even if it is not ready to drop a grenade, it still provides the bad guys with eyes in the sky that let them spot troops and equipment from miles away.
At the other end of the spectrum are tiny micro drones. These palm-size quadcopters can carry miniature cameras and transmitters. Even though their range is limited (about 90 feet), they can still allow combatants to see over walls and around corners without having to expose themselves. Tiny and very inexpensive (under $30), these units can be carried in a pocket, deployed in an instant, and are disposable. They also use frequency-agile transmitters.
Countering these units is not difficult. Just as these drones are off-the-shelf systems, there also are off-the-shelf systems available to deal with them. One of the most common is the Raysun MD1 Multicopter Defender. Made by JiunAn Technology Company of Taiwan, the Raysun MD1 looks like a Buck Rogers space weapon. It has a rifle stock, open, telescopic, or even night-vision sights, and a waveguide antenna for a barrel. The Raysun MD1 “fires” radio waves that knock out a drone’s GPS reception and/or block its control signal.
Most GPS-equipped quadcopters now have programming that makes the drone fly back to its takeoff point when the control signal has been lost. So when the signal is blocked, this feature turns the drone into a homing device that provides an exact fix on the position of the enemy.
While all of this helps, detecting these drones in the first place is still a major problem. They are small, quiet, difficult to see, and fly low enough to be lost in the ground clutter and thus invisible to radar. Their commercial availability puts high-tech capabilities into the hands of forces that do not have the resources to develop their own. But who would have imagined that toys would have a place on the battlefield?
Image #1 – When most people think of “drones,” they think of the General Atomics’s Predator and Reaper aircraft. In service in various forms for almost 30 years, the MQ-8 Predator and newer MQ-9 Reaper are true workhorses. (Photo courtesy General Atomics)
Image #2 & 4 – The Northrop Grumman MQ-8B and the larger follow-on MQ-8C Fire Scout operate autonomously from land or sea. Able to carry a wide array of sensor packages and payloads, the Fire Scout has been taking on a remarkable variety of missions for the U.S. Navy. (Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman)
Image #3 – AeroVironment’s Raven launches like a javelin and gives infantry instant eyes in the sky. Such small drones are now major factors in any battlespace. (Photo courtesy AeroVironment)
Image #5 & 6 – Northrop Grumman’s Bat UAS launches from a rail and lands by flying into a recovery net. With a wingspan of up to 14 feet, the Bat carries more advanced sensor packages than some of the smaller tactical drones. (Photo’s courtesy Northrop Grumman)
Image #7 – Off-the-shelf consumer drones such as the DJI Mavic give every fighting force access to eye-in-the-sky capability. Equipped with a high-resolution 4K camera, GPS guidance, gyro-stabilized flight control, and a range of up to 3 miles, these small drones are difficult to detect. (Photos by John Likakis)
Image #8 & 9 – Even tiny “toy” drones such as this little quadcopter can be equipped with miniature cameras and transmitters to allow remote viewing in tight quarters, such as urban areas. These drones have six MEMS gyros built into their circuit boards and are stable enough for a child to operate with ease. Countermeasures against such consumer drones include the off-the-shelf Raysun MD1 Drone Defender This multifunction “radio rifle” can jam the drone’s transmitter signal or GPS signal to disable it. (Drone photo by John Likakis; Raysun MD1 courtesy Jiun An Tech Co., Ltd.)