Unmanned Aerial Systems
BLAIR WATSON
© 2010 FrontLine Defence (Vol 7, No 5)

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More than 40 nations, including Canada, currently operate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for military purposes. The list is topped by the United States in terms of dollars invested. American companies and military research institutes have developed at least 30 different types of UASs in the past decade alone. News reports about attacks by U.S. drones – with names such as “Predator” and “Reaper” – have increased the public’s awareness of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
 
California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems makes the propeller-driven Predator A and Predator B Reaper as well as the jet-powered Predator C Avenger, which first flew in April 2009 but is not yet operational. Predator aircraft are classified by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) as Tier II Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs. The Predator-series unman ned aircraft have flown nearly 1.2 million hours – more than 80,000 missions – with over 85 percent in combat.
 
Predator Bs are also operated by the air forces of Britain and Italy and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (part of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security). The USAF operates a steadily increasing number of UAVs, and last year it trained more pilots to fly unmanned aircraft than fighters and bombers, a first in its history.
 
As more militaries during the past generation have employed unmanned systems, smaller, lighter systems that are easy to transport and operate close to the fight have been developed.
 
Canadian Forces UAVs
In the early days of Canada’s experimentation with UAVs for mission use in Afghanistan (2003-2009), the CF utilized the Sperwer UAV, manufactured by the French firm SAGEM. These were replaced last year by the CU-170 Heron, which was developed by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). The Department of National Defence (DND) leases the Heron from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, British Columbia. According to Air Command, the CU-170’s main functions are “to gather imagery and data for use in surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence analysis and target acquisition. It can scout out convoy routes and other ground operations areas, scan for insurgents, or observe suspicious activity, such as planting improvised explosive devices. Its capabilities will help reduce insurgent attacks, and save lives — Canadian and Afghan alike.”
 
Canada’s Army is currently using two types of UAVs much smaller than the Heron: the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle (Insitu, Inc. of Bingen, Washington was bought by Boeing in 2008) and the Maveric UAS (made by Prioria Robotics of Gainsville, Florida). Described as “runway independent,” the ScanEagle is launched by catapult and employs a unique “SkyHook” system for recovery. Small and light enough to be carried by one person (20 kg fully loaded with a 3.1m wing span), this UAS can be quickly deployed in difficult terrain such as in Afghanistan or from naval vessels.
 
In May 2008, Boeing was awarded a $12-million short-term contract to provide UAV intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) services to the Canadian Army. Eleven months later, the federal government awarded Boeing/Insitu a $30M contract to continue providing small unmanned aerial vehicle (SUAV) services to support ISR operations in Afghanistan. The new contract includes in-theatre flight operations, on-demand payload reconfiguration, and aircraft maintenance.
 
Acquisition of the Maveric UAS is a recent development. In early August 2010, Public Works and Government Services Canada awarded a $2.8-million contract to Prioria for the ISTAR MUAV (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance miniature unmanned aerial vehicle) program. Prioria will supply the Army with five Maveric systems that include 25 hand-launched UAVs and portable ground control stations (GCS).
 
Derek Lyons, Prioria VP director of business development and sales, describes the Maveric as a small UAS with “impressive features such as bendable wings, onboard processing, image stabilization and target tracking.” Designed to resemble a bird, the bendable wings also improve flight stability and video stabilization. It is considered a next-generation system because of its “unparalleled abilities, rugged composition and modular payload structure,” he said.
 
Touted to be the smallest UAS to support a gimballed camera or SWIR (short wave infrared) sensor, the Maveric comes assembled and is currently the only Tier 1 UAS that flies in 25-knot sustained winds with gusts up to 35 knots. According to Lyons, the Maveric is also the only UAS with collision detection capability (using Prioria’s onboard Merlin processor).
 
Training & Operation
Operating the Heron and keeping it airworthy involves three key roles: an Air Vehicle Operator (pilot), Maintenance Technician (airframe, engine, and non-payload electronics), and Payload Operator (cameras, sensors). IAI has provided basic training and train-the-trainer instruction to MDA. Courses vary in length from a few weeks to several months and are conducted at the company’s training centre in Suffield, Alberta.
 
Simulation is part of MDA’s training regime. The company explained in an e-mail: “Simulators play a very important part of the training program for Air Vehicle Operators. It is much safer for students to learn how to respond to emergency situations in a synthetic environment, rather than putting the aircraft at risk in order to achieve the training objectives.” MDA also said that computer-based training (CBT) aids are used.
 
To keep the Herons airworthy, “MDA conducts all maintenance operations in accordance with the policies and procedures of the company’s DND-accredited Aircraft Maintenance Organization (AMO).”
 
As with other equipment, UAS training is key. In an interview for this article, Insitu’s director of training, Matt Lynaugh, explained that the company provides training not only for the Air Vehicle Operators (AVO) and technicians, but also Site Mission Coordinators. Basic AVO training – for students with no UAS experience as well as operators experienced on other UAVs – lasts ten weeks. Classroom time is 66 hours and covers ScanEagle systems, ground operations, basic flying skills and operations, GCS indoctrination, and an introduction to tactics. Intermediate and advanced training usually takes place at a site designated by the customer.
 
Insitu trains AVOs using a simulator that is identical to the deployed system. Normal, abnormal, and emergency procedures, inputting flight plans via a computer graphic interface with digital maps, and other pilot functions are simulated. As AVOs complete simulator training, they transition to flying the small aircraft.
 
Insitu has trained Army personnel as ScanEagle trainers at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Gagetown. In an Army News online video, Captain Michael Hobson, officer commanding SUAV (Small UAV) Troop for Task Force Afghanistan 3-09, explains: “Here in the training area, what we are trying to do is simulate scenarios, as per Afghanistan. With those scenarios, we allow the controller of the aircraft, being the AVO, to look on the ground, get used to using the camera, notice what actions would be seen from the local area in Afghanistan, and we try to simulate that same situation or scenario here in Gagetown to allow the maximum practice before they hit the ground in Afghanistan.”
 
 
With a max. weight of 1,150 kilograms, the CU-170 Heron can conduct operations for more than 24 hours at a top speed of 120 knots (222 km/h) and altitudes up to 30,000 feet. It can remain on-station for at least 12 hours while 100 kilometres away from its operating base. The Heron collects and securely transmits gyro-stabilized, electro-optical and infrared imagery, and can broadcast both full-motion and still images.
 
Training at CFB Gagetown also covers safety. “We also see all the engine controls and avionic controls within the GCS, to allow safety parameters to be upheld so that there aren’t any air infractions,” says Capt Hobson.
 
The August 4/10 issue of The Maple Leaf  included a comment by Master Bombardier Raymond Curnew of the 4th Air Defence Regiment (4 AD Regt) about the ScanEagle training: “We are at the mid-way point of the course and it’s been excellent so far. The SUAVs are a great asset and provide excellent capability for the Canadian Forces. They have the ability to save the lives of soldiers on the ground. It’s great to be part of this new technology, and the SUAVs, in my opinion, are fantastic.”
 
Insitu also provides two weeks of Site Mission Coordinator (SMC) training for those with previous military aviation experience; ScanEagle capabilities and how to use them to greatest advantage in-theatre are covered. For senior commanders, Insitu delivers a four-day familiarization course.
 
Insitu’s maintenance training involves some classroom time, but is “very hands-on,” according to Lynaugh. The course covers not only the SUAV, but also the ground launcher and other systems.
 
Within a few weeks of being awarded the ISTAR MUAV contract, Prioria sent its personnel to CFB Gagetown to train soldiers on the Maveric UAS. As of late September, two systems (10 aircraft) had been shipped to the Canadian Army and more were being readied. With bendable wings that wrap around the Maveric’s small fuselage, each hand-held UAS fits inside a six-inch-diameter carrying tube.
 
A key issue that Prioria had to address with its training program was crashes. Normally, the Maveric is flown to a desired retrieval area, descending to an altitude of about 40 feet, at which point the AVO is supposed to put the aircraft into a deep stall to make the small UAV land on its tough, carbon fibre belly. Beginner operators have crashed the Maveric on its forward nose, where some payload equipment is located. With enhanced training, Army AVOs learned to land the vehicle correctly.
 
The Unmanned Future
 UAVs under development range from almond-sized to ultra-high-flyers (cruising altitudes up to 65,000 feet) with wingspans that exceed that of the Canadian Forces’ Globemaster III strategic airlifter by several metres. In July, the solar- and battery-powered Zephyr UAV flew for 336 hours and 21 minutes, a world record. British manufacturer QinetiQ has designed the Zephyr to remain aloft for three months.
 
In May, the scramjet-powered X-51A Waverider UAV – the brainchild of researchers and engineers from the USAF Research Laboratory and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne as industry partners – reached Mach 6 (~6,430 km/h at cruising altitude) off the coast of southern California. U.S. Air Force officials called the test “an unqualified success.”
 
Shortly after the Waverider’s hypersonic flight, BAE Systems’ Demon flew for the first time. According to the company, the Demon “is designed to fly with no conventional elevators or ailerons, getting its pitch and roll control from technologies which rely on blown air and so requires much fewer moving parts, therefore making it a lot easier to maintain and repair.” Software makes the Demon partly autonomous.
 
With Canadian combat troops scheduled to depart Afghanistan by July 2011, UAS requirements for the future have not been firmly decided. When asked about the Joint UAV Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) Program, a DND spokesperson said that JUSTAS “represents a significant evolution of current CF capabilities and is a departmental priority. DND remains committed to advancing this capability as quickly as possible, as it supports the government’s vision articulated in the Canada First Defence Strategy. The CF is currently conducting studies to validate structure demands in order to enable the achievement of the Canada First Defence Strategy and Investment Plan capability goals. All new projects, including JUSTAS, are subject to this review to ensure that the CF is able to achieve a proper balance between efficiency and effectiveness.”
 
Opposition parliamentarians have been calling for a comprehensive study – a white paper – to determine exactly what Canada’s requirements will be relative to replacing the aging CF-18 Hornet fleet. Some Members of Parliament have wondered publicly if UAVs could be utilized to accomplish at least some next-generation fighter missions. Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) that can pull two to three times as many “g’s” (force of gravity) as manned jet fighters are being developed in the U.S., Britain, and other countries.
 
DND/CF may opt to acquire more unmanned aerial systems in the future  – the advantages are many. For example, the cost of UASs is typically a fraction of manned aircraft and in many cases the former can remain airborne much longer than the latter. UAVs decrease the need for more expensive platforms such as manned reconnaissance and fighter aircraft. Moreover, UAVs can operate in remote or hazardous areas thereby providing solutions to commanders without risking people. Proper training will continue to be key in terms of effectively utilizing these modern military assets. UAS usage will expand significantly in the decades ahead, and related training will continue to evolve.

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Blair Watson is a contributing editor for FrontLine Defence and FrontLine Security magazines.
© FrontLine Defence 2010

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