Military Aerospace Technology Today is: Oct 22, 2006
Volume: 5  Issue: 2
Published: Oct 08, 2006

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This article was Originally Published on Feb 02, 2003 in Volume: 2  Issue: 1

Gnat Attack

Interview with

Swarms of robochoppers may fill the battlespace alongside their UAV elders—both armed and ready to fight.

By Michael Peck

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Little remote-controlled helicopters zip around the battle unleashing Hellfires. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) play battlefield postmen as they drop off medicine and ammunition before heading for home. These could be scenes from a Hollywood sci-fi flick, complete with handsome actors and bad dialogue.

But truth will be stranger than fiction as the Army prepares to transform UAVs from dutiful reconnaissance drones into attack platforms and transport vehicles. With the Air Force and Navy way ahead in the game with their development of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), it was inevitable that the Army would follow suit [see MAT Vol. 1, No. 5]. Mindful that the Air Force and CIA used armed Predators in Afghanistan, its answer to the UCAV is the Unmanned Combat Aerial Rotorcraft (UCAR), a small unmanned attack helicopter.

At the same time, the Army is testing how to arm its fixed-wing UAVs. “Right now we are looking at different ordnance that the Army currently has in inventory and how we are going to adapt them to UAVs that we already have in production and deployment,” said an Army officer familiar with the UAV program. The Army has already launched Hellfires from another, more primitive remote-controlled helicopter, according to an Army officer familiar with aviation.

Recently, the Army successfully launched a Brilliant Anti-Armor submunition (BAT), an acoustic- and infrared-guided weapon designed to attack moving vehicles. Phase 2 of these tests will use the improved BAT P3I (a planned product improvement of the BAT), which incorporates millimeter-wave radar and an improved infrared guidance to attack stationary targets such as missile launchers.

Other potential weapons include Stingers missiles (in an air-to-air role) and the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, which adds laser targeting to the low-cost HYDRA-70 2.75-inch rockets currently in service. UAVs will eventually be armed with the Common Missile, in the planning stages as a replacement for aging TOWs and Hellfires, said the Army official.

He noted that the Predators in Afghanistan were a useful test, saying, “The lessons of that were the demonstration of some operational concepts and applications of armed UAVs. What Predator has done with the Hellfire in Afghanistan has shown how you can, in an operational situation, integrate the UAV, the weapon, the manned aviation in the area, ground control and targeting.”

The official sees the program operating in two phases. First will come existing UAVs armed with weapons already in service or deployed by 2007. These are stopgap solutions that will hold the line while the UCAR migrates from the drawing board into operational use. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) spokeswoman Jan Walker said the agency would hand off the program to the Army for system development around 2010.

The Useful UCAR

It is easy to understand the attraction of a Vertical Takeoff and Landing craft (VTOL). VTOLs may lack the speed and range of their fixed-wing counterparts, but they can hover, and that is good enough. They require little space for takeoffs and landings, and can operate from the roughest airstrips.

The Department of Defense (DoD) is moving aggressively on this by leapfrogging the UCAR on the progress made in the UCAV. In May, DARPA and the Army selected four teams of contractors to participate in the first phase of the UCAR program with each team given $3 million apiece

Each team has 12 months to conceptually design a system, followed by a nine-month phase where one or two of the teams will be chosen to complete a demonstration project. The plan is to use existing technology as much as possible. Rather than employing a dedicated ground station, UCARs will be controlled from existing platforms such as the Comanche attack helicopter, the Army Airborne Command and Control System or ground stations already used for other UAVs. However, the UCAR will be programmed to have great autonomy during missions, with human controllers handling tasking and authorizing weapons release.

Beyond sparing pilots from risking their lives in particularly hazardous missions, the UCAR is supposed to be much cheaper than its manned counterparts. DARPA is aiming for a 20 percent to 40 percent savings over the Comanche flyaway cost as well as 50 percent to 80 percent reduction over Apache operating and support costs.

The New Barnstormers

The Army official likens the current state of UAV development to the barnstorming days of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time when military aircraft gradually became more sophisticated as nations determined new roles for the infant flying machines. “In World War I planes were strictly for artillery spotting, then we dropped things from them, then we put machine guns on them, and now we use them for electronic surveillance and refueling.”

He also does not believe the UCAR will solely be a combat vehicle. “I don’t really anticipate that we will develop an aircraft that only uses weapons. We want multi-use aircraft where the payload can accommodate weapons or other payloads such as reconnaissance, communications relay, target designation or some types of logistics payloads.”

For example, what if one night the weather is so bad or the flak so thick that resupply helicopters just cannot get through to a beleaguered Ranger platoon? UAVs could potentially do the job. “What we’re looking at in some simulations is how you would use the UAV with GPS and precision guidance to coordinate an airdrop of payload into a designated area and return to base,” the officer said.

UAVs are also integral to the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) concept, which specifies a long-endurance UAV as well a short-range, low-altitude aircraft. A draft of the Force Capabilities assessment calls for reconnaissance UAVs to be organic assets down to the brigade and battalion level. Unmanned aircraft, typically working in tandem with manned Comanche attack helicopters or controlled by ground stations, will target hostile forces artillery and air strikes or engage the enemy with their own weapons.

The FCS envisions using UAVs as relay stations when communications are disrupted by long distances or restricted line-of-sight. Other missions include reconnaissance to assist in taking urban areas, supporting isolated American forces, or interdicting enemy reinforcements. With the FCS also envisioning unmanned ground vehicles for attack and observation, the image of a battlefield where unmanned craft dominate the land and sky is not farfetched.

In the days of Lindbergh, ground commanders only slowly learned to accept and exploit the capabilities of aviation. Will today’s land warriors be comfortable with armed UAVs or remote-controlled attack helicopters? There is a perception that rotorcraft technology is harder to make mature and that the craft are less mechanically reliable, according to Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Arlington, VA. “The number of things that can go wrong is greater than with a fixed-wing system. I think there is more comfort with a fixed-wing system, even though conceptually there are a quite few things that a VTOL system can give you that fixed-wing aircraft can’t.”

The Army expert believes that UAVs are in a situation like the barnstorming days of aviation. “Just like in the 1920s and 30s, you are looking for a balance. And then eventually, the confidence in the unmanned systems to be used independently of the manned systems for aviation missions will take place,” he predicted. “In the next 10 years, we are going to see manned/unmanned teaming in the aviation area and air-ground synchronization for unmanned systems operating autonomously without manned escort.”

Armed UAVs are here to stay, agrees Davidson, who points to the absence of public criticism of using armed Predators in Afghanistan. “They may not be a perfect solution yet, but they have been identified as a valuable asset. And especially with mobile weapon systems that we are trying to track down, you can minimize the time to target and strike it.”

Like the Air Force and DARPA, the Army is sensitive to the political hot potato of using the word “autonomous” in conjunction with armed UAVs. For now, it is political fantasy that the craft will be able to fire without human intervention. “You read Popular Science and you get the idea that we’re going to send these things out into somebody else’s country and they are to going to root around like something out of Jurassic Park,” complained the Army official.

But efforts are underway to define just what “autonomy” means, said Davidson. “A lot of labs and organizations within the government can’t even agree on what that word means.”

For the foreseeable future, UAVs will team up with manned helicopters such as the Apache. “One of the things that we have done so far, where we have been very successful, is where you have a UAV that is out somewhere in front of a manned aircraft and is providing surveillance and reconnaissance, such as sending video back to an Apache Longbow, for instance,” the Army official. The Army is equipping its UAVs with DoD’s Standard Tactical Control Data Link.

Special operations forces are taking advantage of small UAVs. “We’re also doing some things with the light infantry type units where they are using the UAVs that belong to the intelligence community to do route recon and surveillance,” said the official.

Army UAVs will perform the “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks that would endanger or waste manned aircraft. A dangerous mission might be suppressing enemy air defenses, while dirty would be flying in chemically contaminated areas. A dull task would be loitering for hours as a communications relay station. “You have a whole bunch of missions that are not aviation-specific, such as rapid medical resupply, logistics missions, comm relay missions, chemical detection, and mine detection. Those missions will be done by the ground operators.”

As with the other services, the Army is working out the kinks in using UAVs in the busy airspace of a battlefield. “Right now we’re working on airspace deconfliction, ingress and egress routes, airspace command and control, said the official. “The Army is in many ways the lead on this because we have done manned/unmanned teaming.”

The Little Hummingbird That Could

Weapons and cargo canisters are great, but UAVs and manned helicopters must be on the battlefield to use them. Long range has not been a feature of rotary-wing aircraft, but even as DARPA develops the UCAR, it is pushing the envelope of range and endurance with new propulsion technologies that could bestow Army aviation with the long legs of an Olympic runner.

One DARPA testbed is the A-160 Hummingbird, a remote-controlled helicopter that is intended to demonstrate a “unique propulsion system,” said DARPA spokeswoman Walker. DARPA is aiming for a rotary-wing aircraft with endurance greater than 2,500 nautical miles and an endurance of 24 to 48 hours. “The goal is to develop a rotary-wing aircraft with the endurance of a Predator-class UAV,” Walker added.

Manufactured by Frontier Systems in Irvine, CA, and funded with DARPA and Army money, the Hummingbird has a theoretical range of 3,000 nautical miles, can carry a maximum 2,500-pound payload or 500 pounds for 30 hours, and fly at 35,000 feet, according to Frontier CFO Gale Kerem. Its long legs come from a very rigid, very strong optimal speed rotor (OSR) that allows it to easily adjust its RPM without vibration. “If you want to become more fuel efficient, you’re going to have to vary the RPM as needed,” said Kerem.

At cruising speed the vehicle can tool along using only 50 percent power, or the helicopter equivalent of cruise control. Range is also boosted because almost 80 percent of the aircraft is made of composites. “A very important function of it would be to go a thousand kilometers out, do a 24-hour loiter, and come back,” Kerem said.

Such endurance can ease the strain of overseas operations where helicopters must be ferried by transport aircraft or ships. Instead they can be flown directly to remote areas instead of “loading up helicopters on a C-5 and paying some country to land on their airfields,” said Kerem.

Kerem claims there are other novel features to the Frontier design. For one, it is acoustically a stealth aircraft. “Because of the rotor, it is very quiet. We are trying to hit 15 decibels less than normal helicopters,” she said. “When you’re hearing the rotor turn in a ground test from a thousand feet away, and you hear a Black Hawk take off a mile away, the difference is amazing.” And while it has a large radar signature common to all helicopters, the OSR rotor may throw off enemy radar operators for a while because of its variable RPM.

Another unusual feature is an arm designed to lift and deposit payloads, which is made possible by the strength of the rotor. “The aircraft will be able to extend a manipulating arm from its belly that is able to extend beyond the rotor,” Kerem said.

Kerem estimates that a rotorcraft like the A-160 could be 30 percent to 40 percent more expensive than a Predator. However, she explains, those additional costs are canceled by the expense of constructing airfields for fixed-wing aircraft.

There are currently three prototypes of Frontier’s design, which first flew in January of 2002. In March 2002, a flight demonstration lasted for two hours, during which the A-160 engaged its variable RPM rotor. According to Kerem, based on their fuel consumption calculations for that flight, the rotorcraft could have flown for 3,000 miles.

As part of the A-160 program, Frontier has also modified a lightweight unmanned commercial helicopter into a new model called the Maverick. “It’s a smaller craft that up to eight hours of endurance, or carry 500 pounds for three to four hours.” It is a cheap alternative for training Hummingbird operators. “I can tell you I don’t fly any helicopters or aircraft, but I can fly this,” Kerem said. “It’s like controlling Pac-Man. You need about ten minutes briefing before you can fly it.” The Maverick may also see more specialized use. Reportedly it has caught the eye of U.S. special operations forces.

However, the UCAR or Hummingbird fare, it is a certainty, as events in Yemen recently proved, that Army UAVs will carry weapons and much more. The dutiful drone has come of age.

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