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This article was Originally Published on Oct 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 5

The UAV That Woudn't Die

The Pioneer UAV has droned on for nearly 20 years. A stitch-in-time upgrade, however, may keep it buzzing until 2010.

by Michael Peck

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In the world of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Pioneer is the permanent “temp.” Hastily thrown into the breach in 1986, when experiences in Grenada and Lebanon convinced the Navy and Marines to acquire a tactical UAV quickly, the Pioneer became an “interim” system that has lasted nearly twenty years. Finally, it was supposed to be phased out in 2005; however reports of the Pioneer’s demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Now Congress is likely to approve a five-year, $101 million Product Improvement Program (PIP) for Pioneer, which will allow the Marines to deploy the durable drone for the foreseeable future. The development comes, however, at the possible expense of Pioneer’s heir apparent, the Northrop Grumman-Ryan Aeronautical Firescout, which still is in testing stages.

“Really it left us with nothing, so we went into survivability mode,” said Marine Corps Major Greg Hanville, UAV Coordinator at Headquarters USMC.

The Marines know they need next-generation UAVs, and they are working on an ambitious plan to deploy a new mix by 2010. But, for the time being, Pioneer—like an aging but unbowed pinch-hitter—will once again step up to the launcher, this time refurbished with a new engine and sensors.

Pioneer is a 450-pound, 14-by-17-foot mini-airplane that cruises at just under 100 mph. Currently there are three complete Pioneer systems with 45 operational air vehicles assigned to one Navy and two Marine Corps units. A training unit also exists, but apparently is not comprised of a complete system. In October, however, the Navy will hand over its Pioneer vehicles to the Marines, which will increase the number of UAVs in each Marine squadron from five to eight. The Navy’s launch system will then go into reserve or could be used by the training unit.

Pioneer is produced by Pioneer UAV Inc., a Hunt Valley, MD-based joint venture of AAI Corporation and Israel Aircraft Industries. Though Pioneer originated as an Israeli design, it traces its American lineage back to 1985, when the Navy urgently needed a UAV for targeting, reconnaissance and bomb damage assessment. The system was quickly acquired in 1986, and Pioneer went on to fly in Desert Storm. Here it became famous for the true story about the Iraqi troops who, perhaps realizing that a battleship’s 16-inch shells were not far behind, surrendered to a loitering Pioneer. It also flew over Somalia and Bosnia, where its tasks included estimating the size of civilian crowds. The Army also fielded a Pioneer company until the mid-1990s, when newer Army UAVs replaced it. As of August 2002, Pioneer has flown almost 24,000 cumulative hours.

“It’s analogous to a DC-3,” said one Pioneer UAV Inc. official.

Optimizing Pioneer

A typical Pioneer system consists of several UAVs, a ground control station, a portable control station, a tracking control unit, four remote receiving stations, and launch and recovery equipment. PIP enhances the Pioneer in several of these areas, with some of these improvements being modifications that the Israelis made to their own UAVs. “They’ve experimented with a lot of things on their air vehicles,” said the Pioneer official. “Part of the PIP program will capitalize on this, such as an auxiliary fuel tank.”

Other improvements include:

  • Endurance and power. Currently Pioneer is powered by a 26-horsepower engine that drives a pusher-propeller. PIP will give Pioneer a new fuel-efficient engine as well as a 24-liter auxiliary fuel tank that will double the UAV’s endurance from four to eight hours.
  • Mobility. “We won’t need five-ton or seven-ton trucks to transport them anymore,” said Hanville, explaining that all ground control equipment will be mounted on Humvees, while the launcher will be on a trailer that can fit into a Marine Corps C-130 and thus will eliminate the need to obtain air transport from the Air Force.
  • Adaptability. The Pioneer will receive a 200-pound, Israel Aircraft Industries Plug-in Optitronic Payload (POP), which is also used by the Army’s newest UAV, the Shadow. The payload package could be composed of one of three sensor “slices”—electro-optical infrared sensor, a spotter-tracker and a laser designator unit—depending on mission requirements. “When you need a laser rangefinder, it’s [as simple as] removing four screws—pop the old ones out and [screw] the new ones in,” Hanville said. “What’s nice is that if you’re starting it up and the payload goes bad, in five minutes you’ve got a new one in.”
  • Communications. PIP upgrades the existing ground control station, and adds  portable and Manpack Receiving Stations. Currently, Pioneer’s collected data is disseminated by the Remote Receiving Station, an antiquated, black-and-white video-only receiver. PIP’s new Manpack Receiving Station will provide video correlated to a moving digital map that includes data both from telemetry and global positioning satellite system (GPS) gear. The operator will be able to see the location of the air vehicle, the location of the ground station, video imagery from the UAV, the swath of terrain visible to the UAV’s camera, and mission planning/threat data.
  • Commonality. There is currently no commonality between Pioneer and similar UAVs such as the Army’s Shadow. “The goal is 70 to 75 percent commonality,” said one Pioneer official. Hanville predicts the improved Pioneer launcher will be the same one used by the Shadow.

Reality Check

Even with an enhanced Pioneer, the Marines still face the task of making the most out of a limited number of aging UAVs. Hanville said one way is to squeeze multiple missions out of the same air vehicle. “We have increased the endurance of Pioneer so you can run multiple missions. So for example, on the way out toward a target, it’s working for the MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force), but let’s say the MEF only needs it for two hours. As it’s coming back, it passes to ground control of a station that’s in support of a regimental commander.”

Another force multiplier is to increase the number of ground stations that can tap the Pioneer’s data. Accordingly, the Marines are accelerating the deployment of manpack stations down to company level, said Hanville. A company commander could even allocate a manpack to a platoon if needed. In addition, PIP will enable better dissemination of collected data by eliminating information bottlenecks at ground stations. “Now [pre-PIP] it’s all pretty stovepipe,” said Hanville. “It [tactical information] kind of stays there.” Expedients have been devised, such as sending data by e-mail, but under PIP this will not be necessary as ground stations get networked.

The Marine’s New UAV Plan

Along with a beefed-up Pioneer, the Marines are working on a Concept of Operations for UAVs that should be out in a few months. “It shows how different UAVs with different capabilities complement each other on the battlefield,” said Hanville. The solution will probably be a two-tiered mix of short- and medium-range UAVs.

For example, the study found that instead of relying on intelligence handed down from a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) operating a medium-range Pioneer, “a maneuver commander needs to have either his own UAV or direct access to a UAV that’s supporting him,” Hanville said. This means unmanned air vehicles that can be launched and controlled by units as far down the command chain as a rifle company. “These [UAVs] would be the 3-foot, 30-minute endurance types,” Hanville added.

For now, the Pioneer will perform the medium-range role as well as longer-range tasks (the Marines define long-range as a distance greater than 110 miles). As for short-range UAVs, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and the Naval Research Laboratory are developing the Dragon Eye, which is scheduled to become operational next year. It’s a reusable five-pound, prop-driven airplane that is 36 inches long and has a wingspan of 45 inches. Operating at an altitude of 200 to 1,200 feet for 30 to 60 minutes, the Dragon Eye is designed to transmit near-real-time color images during the day and low-light images at night, at a range of more than five kilometers. Its onboard computer can be pre-programmed for a specific mission or reprogrammed in flight. The Dragon Eye can be assembled and launched by a team of two in approximately 10 minutes and its disassembled five parts can be carried in an ALICE (All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment) backpack.

Regardless of the UAV type or mix ultimately settled on, the Marines—in fact, all the services—will make increasing use of UAVs. “We’re still in a learning stage,” admitted Hanville. He expects there will always be issues with line-of-sight, supportability, and launch and recovery site placement.

Opinion is also divided as to the direction UAVs are headed, Hanville said. Some want UAVs to be larger, with more endurance and heavier payloads. Others prefer smaller vehicles because their logistics are less demanding. In the end, it comes down to what the end users want, he elaborated. Many ground commanders have not had a chance to work with UAVs, but those that have, love the intelligence they receive. “The hard part is getting it to them.”

Return of the Naval UAV?

While the Marines are banking on the improved Pioneer, the Navy’s suspension of its dedicated UAV program presents a problem for the fleet. “Pioneer is currently our only tactical UAV,” said Paul Achille, deputy program manager of the Navy’s UAV program office.

One solution to the looming requirement may present itself in fiscal year 2003, when the Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration System will begin. “Global Hawk is a long-endurance, high altitude UAV,” said Achille. “The question is how we can use it as a tactical as well as a strategic system.”

Achille believes the Navy will eventually embrace a whole range of UAVs, with the options ranging from Dragon Eye to modified Predators. The Navy’s future UAV requirements will be defined by a recently commissioned study group called the BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) project. BAMS will consider multiple solutions for the Navy’s long-, medium- and short-range reconnaissance needs by evaluating modified versions of Global Hawk and Predator B as well as investigating a Navy version of the UCAV or an entirely new UAV design.

According to Achille, the Navy is also searching for ways to make UAV data available to submarine commanders, either through the introduction of sub-launched drones or through the installation of onboard tactical data links to the UAV. The Navy’s DD (X) Project, which is tasked with determining future surface warfare requirements, may find that tactical UAVs—operating as part of a standard sensor suite—are a necessary component of such future vessels as the Littoral Combat Ship. 

Sky King

So, what does the future hold for the venerable Pioneer? However tortuous the path to congressional funding and a worthy successor, sooner or later there will be a new UAV that will relegate the Pioneer to the annals of aviation history.

Or will it? Though designed for military use, the Pioneer is already being used for law enforcement. The vehicle is already flying surveillance for the joint anti-drug task force along the southern border of the United States.  “It’s a major participant,” said one Pioneer official.

“We think there is a place for Pioneer in homeland security,” the official added. Other roles under consideration include monitoring of forest fires and power lines. There already have been demonstrations for Pioneer in these roles.

However, operating UAVs in civilian airspace can be a turbulent problem. “The issue is national airspace and how you clear an unmanned platform to fly in airspace which is full of manned guys,” said the Pioneer official. For example, if the air vehicle loses communications with its ground station, should it be programmed to return home or fly to an isolated crash site?

However, Pioneer does have redundant communications links as well as programming to fly to a designated point to reestablish a link—or crash in a remote area. And it has already flown in national airspace in its drug surveillance role.

In the meantime, the Department of Defense and the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International are already working with the Federal Aviation Administration to resolve safety issues.

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