Unmanned Vehicles Take Off – Again
Robots ‘R’ Us
Jan 15, 2004

One of the modern military tools we hear more and more about these days is the Unmanned Vehicle System (UVS). Canada has helped achieve some successes in this field, but one can argue that we have never reached our potential in either the military or civil arena. But now, thanks to the timely work of a new association called UVS Canada and their first major conference, “Momentum 2003,” held recently in Ottawa, there is now a focus and a platform for the kind of collaboration necessary to start exploring this potential.

The military uses, and indeed success, of unmanned vehicles have increased dramatically in the last few years with the airborne version of these robots, the ‘UAV’ seeing more and more action in roles characterized as dull, dangerous or dirty. (While this may sound like any normal military combat job, one should add that these roles must be capable of execution without the on-board ­presence of a ­person…) This also facilitates reaching out to really cover your area of interest.

Necessity being the mother of invention, it is probably not surprising to learn how far advanced the Israeli Defence Force is in the use of UAVs integrated into their military operations. Systems are also in service in a number of European armed forces. And of course the US has been exploiting the military use of robots in many recent operations: in Afghanistan, where we saw armed UAVs being used to attack targets which would otherwise escaped more conventional weapons platforms as well as leading engineers into caves, and in Iraq where a spectrum of capabilities from theatre through formation and down to unit level capabilities were deployed.

So what has been happening in Canada, anyway?

The history of UVS in Canada is longer that some might think. The Canadarm 2 from MD Robotics on the International Space Station, CDL Systems control facilities used in the US Army, Schreiner Canada’s world leading position in air, land and sea targets, CAE’s advanced training and simulation: these are some of the current winning activities, but Canadair, now Bombardier Aerospace, has been busy with unmanned airborne surveillance systems since 1959, with successes such as the CL 289 (now from EADS) and the more advanced vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) surveillance system CL-327 Guardian (dubbed ‘The Flying Peanut’). As with many tools, the Canadian Forces has not been able to purchase these…

The CF has indeed been working hard to determine the best way to proceed, given our chronically low equipment ­budgets. The Canadian Forces Joint Experimentation Centre is one of the very good outcomes of the past explorations of modelling and testing described in Vanguard Magazine a few years ago. In response to the Canadian Forces’ Strategy 2020, the Centre has been involved in a systematic and escalating series of exercise/experiments and the analysis of results from operations, in order to make sure we have the right concepts and experience to move forward in this area. With experience from the G-8 Summit, and as a follow-up to a comprehensive multi-role, multi-departmental experiment on the West Coast, (which was interrupted from time to time when the Fisheries participants wanted to pursue some of the targets discovered by the trial UAVs!), plans are well advanced for a more sophisticated set of trials on the East coast next year.

Results from these efforts were no doubt of great assistance when a decision was taken to acquire a tactical UAV to support operation of our troops in the ISAF in Afghanistan. In a lightning-fast $30M ­project, the CF purchased, trained and deployed the SPERWER system from the Oerlikon Contraves-SAGEM partnership in a very few months. It appears to be a capable, off-the-shelf system (probably some French Army unit is going short to support this rapid deployment!) already in service with a number of other countries. At the time of writing, the system was being eased into operations in theatre, so time will tell.

Things are moving quickly! The advance of technology has facilitated the maturing of these vehicles, and the demands of the modern battlefield have forced us to react. Granted, there are still a wide variety of issues that need to be addressed., not the least of which is traditional military culture (will the pilots ever let these beasts take over the job?) And organizationally, do these vehicles fit into existing units, or are we to see the re-development of the reconnaissance art? (the ISTAR concepts) It’s also interesting to note the big infrastructure impact of embarking on a UV program. Oh, and by the way, none of the world’s governmental aviation authorities has yet to realize a standards and certification environment, so the flying of unmanned vehicles in most countries only happens on a special case basis.

What about the civil use of these capabilities? Here’s what the President of UVS Canada says:

“We, as Canadians, are blessed with the second largest country in the world while inhabiting only a small portion of it with our 30 million citizens. Unmanned vehicle systems, whether they fly, swim or crawl, have a role to play in aiding us in caring for and getting the most of out of this magnificent country of ours. UVS Canada aims to help with that vision.”

Imagine pollution control surveillance, forest fire monitoring, disaster assessment – the list will grow as the systems become affordable; and it seems that Canada has both the opportunity and the capability to move ahead in this area.

So, it was great to see this “Momentum 2003” conference. Attendees included the US Marines and Army, the Canadian Coast Guard, the US Coast Guard, the commercial sector and regulatory authorities, as well as academia and the Canadian Forces. These diverse groups met one another, ­recognizing (sometimes for the first time) their respective experiences and/or capabilities in unmanned ­vehicles. They learned how others are addressing the problems and issues as well as how best to exploit the potential of the UVS.

Certainly the potential is there, and the platform for consultation is being put in place. UVS Canada deserves our congratulations and best wishes.

MGen (Ret) John Leech is our defence informa­tion technology editor and former GM of AFCEA Canada.

POSTSCRIPT: As this article goes to press, the SPERWER system in Afghanistan is going through the usual trials of introducing a new piece of equipment and the infrastructure that goes with it. To follow what’s going on in the UV community, go to the www.uvscanada.org web site.
© FrontLine Defence 2004