The way the U.S. military buys and operates UAVs will change substantially under initiatives being rolled out this year.The U.S. Defense Department is expected to issue a request for proposals (RFP) late this year or early next year for a prototype system that would be able to control three different kinds of UAVs simultaneously.
Speaking at the Paris Air Show in June, Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems business development director Mark Bigham said the RFP, for which Raytheon intends to bid, had arisen out of a Pentagon directive earlier this year that called for the separation of the air and ground components of unmanned systems. As a result, companies such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which makes the Predator, Reaper and Sky Warrior UAVs, no longer can automatically provide their ground control systems with the craft.
Bigham said the Pentagon is also seeking ground control systems based on open architectures rather than proprietary software systems.
Bigham said a prototype system would be provided about 12 months from when the RFP is issued. He said he believed this would be the first phase; a second phase would extend the concept to other UAVs such as the Fire Scout, Global Hawk and Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system.
The Pentagon move dovetails with a new U.S. Air Force initiative launched this summer that sets out a UAV development and operational plan through 2047.
David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said the plan includes details on the Air Force's vision for UAVs used for all Air Force mission areas, including ISR and strike.
The plan is "not focused on platforms, but rather characterized by doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy recommendations, balancing lessons learned with future requirements," Deptula said while at the Paris Air Show.
Deptula's characterization of the plan as not focused on platforms aligns with changes the Defense Department wants to make in the way it buys UAV systems. In a Feb. 11 memo, then-outgoing acquisition chief John Young directed the Air Force, Army and Navy to come up with common, open architecture for several of the services' UAVs, including Sky Warrior, Predator, Reaper and Fire Scout.
That directive, likely to stand under acquisition chief Ashton Carter, would break apart the current acquisition model under which a UAV maker often provides its own ground system with proprietary software. In this model, separate systems can't communicate with one another and require system-specific training.
Currently, each military service relies on a different type of ground station and software to control its aircraft. The Air Force's ground control stations come from General Atomics for Predators and Reapers, and from Northrop Grumman for Global Hawk. The Army has designated AAI's One System ground station as the control unit for its forthcoming fleet of Sky Warrior aircraft under construction by General Atomics.
In his February memo, Young said the development of common UAV ground systems based on open architecture would reduce training time for UAV operators, control costs better and add new system tools such as data archiving. Detailed program plans for prototype demonstration of that architecture for Predator and Sky Warrior programs were due within a year of Young's February memo, and for Reaper UAVs within 18 months, according to a copy of the memo obtained by C4ISR Journal.
Industry observers in Paris said that change will open up the UAV market to new competition.
During the Paris Air Show, Raytheon displayed the system it intends to bid for a prototype system that could control different UAVs simultaneously.
Raytheon's Universal Control System is partly based on video gaming technology and is controlled by either a paddle with thumb controls similar to controls used for playing video games or a throttle and stick like that used in fighter jets. The system would fly up to four UAVs at once — three on autopilot while the operator focuses on manually flying one.
Bigham said Young "directed every service to separate the air and the ground money into separate buckets and to rebaseline their programs to separate the contracts. That was huge."
The structure of separate prime contracts for ground control systems and UAVs already exists in the Navy, Bigham said. Raytheon is the prime contractor for the Navy's Tactical Control System, used with Northrop's Fire Scout UAV, which Northrop provides under a separate prime contract, he said.
"We're a prime contractor on [the Tactical Control System]; [Northrop Grumman] is a prime contractor on Fire Scout," Bigham said. "What's very different here is the Navy forced that separation way back when, which is why the Navy is really ahead of their time."
Raytheon may propose its KillerBee UAV with the Universal Control System, Bigham said, adding that he believes the idea of a common ground control system will also be part of the Air Force's UAV flight plan.
Textron's AAI unit is developing the interoperable architecture Young endorsed in his February memo, and the company also plans to bid for the RFP for a ground system prototype that could control different UAVs at once, said Steven Reid, vice president of the company's Unmanned Aircraft Systems division.
AAI will provide the ground control segment of the Army's Sky Warrior program, with General Atomics as the maker of the UAV and the prime contractor for the program, Reid said. He added that the Army has expanded the requirements for this ground control architecture to be interoperable with AAI's Shadow tactical UAV.
AAI "has been working for a number of years with various unmanned aircraft system customers to develop and implement a common ground system architecture that would allow one system to control different unmanned aircraft manufactured by different prime contractors," and it has used that architecture to fly General Atomics' aircraft as well as AAI's Shadow, Aerosonde unmanned platforms and Northrop Grumman's Hunter UAV, Reid said.
The company plans to bid for the RFP expected later this year or early next year, Reid said. But, he added, "While we fully support this emphasis on interoperable ground control elements, we also see a continuing role for a prime contractor system integrator to ensure that the complete [unmanned aerial system] meets all program requirements. We think that the current model AAI utilizes with its Army customer provides the best technical and programmatic solution."
Meanwhile, it is not only the U.S. military user that is looking to reshape its approach to UAVs. Industry and Europe are trying to get ahead of anticipated issues related to the rapid growth of UAV fleets.
Five European nations have signed a deal charging the European Defense Agency with the task of inserting UAVs into civil airspace over Europe.
At a meeting of national armament directors at the Paris Air Show, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden tasked the European Union agency with launching the Mid-air Collision Avoidance System (MIDCAS) program, which aims to allow UAVs to fly alongside manned aircraft.
The MIDCAS program will be allocated a 50 million euro ($69 million) budget over four years and combine the efforts of 14 manufacturers and research centers, including SAGEM Defence & Security and Thales Airborne Systems. Sweden was appointed project leader, and Saab Aerosystems was tasked with appointing subcontractors.
"The MIDCAS program aims at demonstrating that UAVs can fly safely in an undivided airspace thanks to technological solutions like the ‘sense and avoid' system," the nations said in a statement.
The MIDCAS program will be developed in collaboration with European civil aviation authorities and U.S. agencies such as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) and the Federal Aviation Administration.
And U.S. company Rockwell Collins has launched what it describes as an "almost altruistic" effort to push forward global cultural acceptance and technical awareness of advances in unmanned aerospace. The company has published an e-book that it intends to distribute to the global aerospace industry to help people stay informed on unmanned vehicle technologies.
"The integration of manned and unmanned is happening faster than most people can imagine; the new aerospace age of the future is truly automation," Rockwell Collins Control Technologies senior director David Vos said at the Paris Air Show. "This e-book is a push to industry from the cultural perspective towards manned and unmanned integration."
Vos said that when the aviation world moved from three-man to two-man crews, there was a major disruption across the industry. "Now it's time to think about getting to one and zero crews," he said.
At Balad Air Base in Iraq, he said, they are already doing that, integrating manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace every day.
The e-book will be updated with everything that is happening in the unmanned domain.
"We could try to keep this stuff under wraps until it is all perfect, but we then will face a culture that says we don't want it, so we have to build a culture of market acceptance," Vos said.