CF Unmanned Projects
Nov 15, 2007

In many ways, the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the last decade ­mirrors the rapid development of traditional ­airplanes – from Kitty Hawk to the end of the First World War. Innovation, imagination and new technology lead to new applications, and as quickly as challenges are overcome, others arise.

Canada is arguably a world leader in the deployment and operation of Tactical UAVs (TUAVs). Few other nations share our operational UAV experience, and no other user of the Sperwer TUAV has amassed as many operational flying hours. The Canadian Forces is capitalizing on this experience to both improve its provision of identification, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data to front-line soldiers in the short-term, and to ensure delivery of a long-term, comprehensive solution to Canada’s domestic and international ISR requirements.

The UAV community in the CF is expanding, and projects exist and are developing to ensure the CF continues to develop this important capability. The Air Force continues to support Sperwer operations and the ISR capability it delivers in Afghanistan. The aim of the Land Forces’ fledgling “Army Small UAV” project is to provide a local ISR capability to our soldiers.

The Joint Airborne ISR Capability (JAIC) project is a streamlined effort, intending to deliver an interim capability to extend the reach of our ISR capabilities to match our requirements. The Joint Unmanned Surveillance, Target Acquisi­tion System (JUSTAS) project is a long-term solution expected to provide an integrated ISR capability as part of Canada’s overall surveillance structure.

The CU161 Sperwer has provided ISR data to CF and NATO forces in Afghanistan since 2003. Rapidly acquired as a solution to an urgent operational requirement for TUAV capabilities, the Sperwer continues to operate in Kandahar, long after its original mandate for operations in Kabul. As a TUAV, the Sperwer fills a broad role, providing both Force Protection capabilities to local commanders, as well as an ISR capability at the brigade level. Development of UAVs progressed quickly from the time of the Sperwer acquisition, and today the CU­161 is rapidly becoming a legacy system. Newer systems take advantage of advancing technology to fill the Force Protection and ISR niches more efficiently than ­previous UAVs.

As a TUAV, Sperwer’s surveillance capabilities extend as far as its line-of-sight command link will allow. The JAIC project aims to enhance this capability by providing a UAV with two key differences – beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) operations, and signals intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities (SIGINT/EW).

May 2007 – Kandahar – Joint Task Force Afghanistan’s Corporal Daniel Martel, a Aircraft Structures Technician with the TUAV Detachment, 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, degreases the fuel cell of the Spewer CU161 prior to a repair job on the cell. (Photo: Sgt Craig Fiander)

BLOS operation is substantially more complex than simple line-of-sight command links. While some systems accomplish BLOS operations by relaying command signals through other airborne UAVs, the most common BLOS method is through ­satellite relay.

The ability for the UAV to operate BLOS offers significant advantages, including the obvious increase in range (which becomes dependent on the vehicle’s endurance, the same as traditional, manned aircraft), and the reduction or elimination of terrain masking. The JAIC project expects to deliver a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV capable of flying 600 km, remaining on scene for 12 hours, and then returning to its base. This can only be accomplished with a BLOS system, but the advantage gained is greater than simply the capability of operating 600 km from base. For missions closer to base, the fuel otherwise used for transit can be used to increase time on station. With these advantages, a long endurance BLOS UAV becomes an ideal platform for the SIGINT/EW role.

SIGINT/EW is an important capability, highly desired by operational commanders. Including this role in the JAIC project will enhance and expand the effectiveness of the platform.

BLOS and SIGINT/EW capabilities are an addition to the traditional UAV role of collecting imagery, both still and video. Electro-optics and infrared (EO/IR) sensors deliver to commanders on the ground, at all levels of command, a level of real-time situational awareness previously difficult or impossible to attain. This same data provides a wealth of information for intelligence assets to analyze and exploit in building and maintaining the intelligence picture. The JAIC project UAV will be capable of providing full motion, colour video direct to appropriately equipped soldiers in the field, and to intelligence personnel for in-depth exploitation and analysis.

Competition among industry to win the JAIC contract is expected to be considerable. A large number of global corporations are capable of delivering an even larger number of systems to meet this need.

Just a few years ago, one or two systems dominated the UAV market. Today, a variety of UAVs compete to fill an increasing demand. Growth in the industry and the increasing number of UAV roles reflect the expanding importance of the capabilities that these systems deliver.
May 2007 – MCpl Gino Duguy, an Avionics Systems Technician with the TUAV Detachment, 2nd Battalion RCR Battle Group, completes post flight maintenance on the Spewer CU161. (Photo: Sgt Craig Fiander, JTF-Afg, Image Tech)

The CF intends to benefit from this market growth by satisfying the JAIC project’s requirements with a mature platform selected through a competitive process.

This process, combined with the expansion of the UAV industry, will facilitate the selection of a UAV platform ­produced by one of the companies with years of expertise and experience in developing, producing and supporting these systems.

Early UAV capabilities were experimental or prototypical in nature. The global UAV community learned from these experiences. Today, CF procurement strategies in general, and the JAIC project specifically, enjoy options not only from a range of available and proven ­platforms, but also in terms of selecting from ­experienced and competitive members of industry.

The CF is well aware of progression in the industry. In a cycle of development that is reminiscent of early aviation, UAVs are maturing from prototype, reconnaissance platforms to mature, armed participants in the battlefield. The ability to employ weapons is a requirement of the JUSTAS project, and the JAIC project may include this capability when the system is first delivered or as a future upgrade.

The JAIC project’s mandatory requirements intend to expand and improve upon the operational level of the CF’s UAV capability. In addition to the JAIC project, the acquisition of a small UAV (SUAV) will ensure that the Force Protection needs of field commanders continue to be met. SUAVs operate from the surface to a few hundred or thousand feet for one to 18 hours, and provide a view “over the next hill.” They are launched and controlled by small units to satisfy immediate intelligence requirements. They enhance the situational awareness of engaged forces, and yield an enormous advantage in combat. The CF intends to acquire a UAV system within this category in the near future.
June 2007 – Sperwan Ghar – Gunner Sheldon Davis of the 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (2 RCHA), disassembles a Skylark mini UAV after its flight. With its on-board video camera, the Skylark is used for aerial surveillance, target-acquisition and intelligence-gathering. (Photo: MCpl Kevin Paul, CF Combat Camera)

The acquisition of an SUAV and a MALE UAV, such as JAIC expects to deliver, will provide a depth of ISR data previously unattainable. These two complementary systems are designed to deliver the right payload (EO/IR, SIGINT/EW, laser targeting, etc.), with the right resolution to the right person at the right time. Canadian experience with the Sperwer, and with coalition operations with the US Air Force Predator, has demonstrated the value of this data. Whether employed in Afghanistan or another deployed operation, an Army SUAV and an Air Force MALE UAV will ensure our forces are armed with the information and data they need to accomplish their missions.

Indeed, deployed operations are the current focus for CF UAV procurement. This is a result of our most critical ISR needs emanating from these operations. Domestic uses primarily include disaster relief for events such as ice storms, major flooding or terrorism related events. During major disasters, ISR becomes critical to ensuring that efforts are appropriately focussed. In the future, UAVs will become integral contributors to our national surveillance structure.

Domestic operations pose a significant challenge for UAVs because, by their very definition, they do not include an onboard human operator. Without an onboard pilot, a UAV does not share the same ability of a manned aircraft to detect and avoid other aircraft. Although operating under instrument flight procedures is a partial solution, UAVs will not be fully integrated into domestic air traffic until a system capable of detecting and avoiding other aircraft can be developed and implemented. Such a system must be at least as reliable and effective as the human eye. It must also be affordable, both with respect to dollar cost, as well as size and weight restrictions on the air vehicle.

Nov 2006 – Kandahar – Sergeant Fugère, 5e Régiment D’Artillerie Légère du Canada (5 RALC), checks the water breal system to prepare the UAV platform for the next flight. (Photo: MCpl Yves Gemus, JTF-A Roto 2, Imagery Technician)

Detect and avoid technology has no simple solution. Significant efforts have already been made around the world, but the technological challenges remain. Certainly, if such a system (small, lightweight and affordable, which can reliably detect potential conflicting aircraft as well or better than the human eye) existed, it would likely be mandatory on most, if not all, aircraft, manned or unmanned. Currently, without detect and avoid technology, UAVs operate either in segregated airspace such as ranges or within altitude reservations, or with other systems providing the lookout, such as chase planes, when they operate within Canada.

Further challenges to domestic applications of UAVs are related to our geography and environment. Satellite communications are technologically challenging in the far north. The curvature of the earth restricts command links to geostationary satellites to below 60ºN latitude. Linking through low or medium altitude orbiting satellites with bandwidth sufficient to enable UAV operations requires reliable access to an orbiting constellation and a system capable of transmitting sufficient, and unbroken, signal strength. This is an expensive solution.

Currently employed UAVs operate best in their particular element – in today’s geopolitical situation that generally means dry, desert conditions. A UAV conducting a future maritime operation in Canadian waters will have to deal with high winds, turbulence, icing and fog. These conditions are overcome today through manned aircraft size and the ­ability to climb and descend to counter inclement weather when necessary. High aspect ratio wings and EO/IR (electro-optics and infrared) payloads characterize current UAVs. This is a formidable combination, but one that is hindered by the forces of wind and fog.

Canada entered the modern spectrum of UAV capabilities in 2003 with the purchase of the CU161 Sperwer. Today, the CF is actively pursuing, expanding and enhancing this capability. The JAIC and SUAV projects intend to meet the CF’s UAV-based ISR requirements, providing soldiers and commanders with ISR suited to immediate force protection and longer-term exploitation. Whichever systems are selected to fill these needs, two aspects remain certain – the desire for ISR data will continue to grow, and the UAV systems that provide such data will continue to be developed and refined.

The similarities between the current state of UAV technology and procurement, and that of our earliest forays into manned, heavier-than-air flight, are unmistakable. Shortly after their invention, manned aircraft fundamentally and irreversibly altered the face of warfare. UAVs are in the process of doing the same thing.
Capt McCorquodale is a Maritime Patrol Air Navigator and a member of the Air Staff in the Directorate of Air Requirements, where he is focussed on the JAIC Project and other UAV related requirements and capabilities. He served as a CU161 Sperwer Air Vehicle Commander in Kabul from November 2003 to March 2004.
© FrontLine Defence 2007