Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What's Next for UAVs?

What's Next for UAVs?: "

U.S. Navy specialists have gathered near Patuxent River, Md. for NavAir’s annual UAV demonstrations to look into the future of unmanned sensors, platforms and operations.

‘Fire Scout is a good example of progress beyond the initial EO-IR sensors [and communications suite],’ say Rear Adm. (lower half) Bill Shannon, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. ‘We have already added AIS, the maritime version of IFF [specifically for ship targets]. It helps sort the good guys from those we don’t know. It’s very important for counter-piracy and counter-drug operations.’

The next thing that gets added is radar. Development starts in 2010. There are three technologies being considered as Navy officials balance the available money and schedule against technical complexity: a straight mechanically scanned radar, a mechanical that can be upgraded to an active electronically scanned array (AESA) and, finally, a  pure AESA.

As a follow on to the radar payload, the Navy is looking at a payload called Cobra, a multi-spectral sensor that can see objects in shallow water for mine detection. In the out years and so far unfunded, Navy specialists are looking at a hyper-spectral system for even greater discrete selectivity in a range of electromagnetic frequency spectrum bands that can discover things hidden by camouflage, water and sand. So far, planning is focused on over-water missions and does not include laser based technologies to find underground facilities and analyze activities taking place in them although the subject is of continuing interest.

The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAV (a variant of the Air Force’s Global Hawk design for long-endurance missions with a payload of  more than 3,000 lb.) has an AESA radar in the baseline system. Radar and electronic surveillance will offer 360-degree coverage and a gimbaled EO/IR sensor will range over 270-degrees.

For positive visual identification of ships, BAMS must be able to operate as low as 10,000 ft., says Gary Kessler, deputy PEO for unmanned aviation.

The second BAMS increment upgrades the on-board communications suite to a ‘flying network node’ that would provide ‘significant benefits’ if there is a ‘loss of access to [communications] satellites,’ Shannon says. ‘It gives the battlegroup the ability to move data from one ship through BAMS to another ship.’

In discussion of a BAMS third variant, there is consideration of signals intelligence packages for intercepting and creating refined targets for precision weapons.  That capability will be influenced by the sensor capabilities offered by the Navy’s new P-8A patrol aircraft (replacing the P-3) and EPX sigint and electronic attack aircraft (replacing the EP-3E).

Electronic attack – primarily jamming of communications and sensors – is not yet a requirement for BAMS.

‘Would some of our platforms have the space, weight and  power [for electronic attack]?’ Shannon says. ‘It could. But we don’t have a requirement and it isn’t in our plans. BAMS will have ESM [electronic surveillance] so it will be able to detect emitters. In the future, a sigint package could give additional levels of specificity [about the type and location of emitters]. Its multi-mode radar will have both ISAR [moving targets] and SAR [stationary targets] capability which should help refine the target set.’

The Navy’s idea is to get the technologies into the field and in working with them, the un-thought of potential uses will reveal themselves.

‘We put hard points on the wings to hang pods, whether its for sigint or some other capability,’ Kessler says. ‘Of course, down the road, Navy UCAS will also have that.  We’ve tried, on our larger systems like Fire Scout and BAMS, to leave some degree of flexibility for future [internal and podded] sensors.’

‘Another operational pull that we get – from the Marine Corps in particular – is to find a way to resupply forward operational bases that are often in remote areas and hard to get to,’ Shannon says. ‘Convoys are vulnerable to IEDs, so the Marine Corps is looking for a UAS cargo variant. Can you use an unmanned helicopter to conduct autonomous resupply and thereby reduce the number of people on the road? The Marines are announcing a couple of awards for companies – the Boeing Humming Bird and Lockheed Martin’s KMAX to provide demonstration of a cargo helicopter with a basic cargo payload of 750 lb. at Afghanistan-representative altitudes – perhaps 10,000-15,000 ft.’


(Via Ares.)

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