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Technology: Modernizing Close-Air Support

DARPA plans 2014 demo of new eyewear, unmanned A-10

Jan. 23, 2012 - 12:03PM   |  
By JIM HODGES   |   Comments
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Through what look like ordinary sunglasses, a U.S. airman traveling with an Army platoon sees a truck off in the distance. Superimposed over the truck is a translucent dome showing the expected fragmentation pattern, or “splash,” from a 500-pound laser-guided bomb. In a corner of the glasses, the airman watches live full-motion video of the target and its surroundings. Icons show him the locations of available strike aircraft and their munitions.

The airman studies this augmented reality view while discussing the target with far-off ground commanders and pilots. Each of them has received a digital readout of the target’s GPS coordinates, which were calculated by a hand-held computer — it could be a tablet or perhaps an Android smartphone.

This scenario is a slice of the future as envisioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under its $60 million Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program. DARPA started the initiative in April by picking Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to assemble competing versions of kits for joint terminal attack controllers, the Air Force staff sergeants and technical sergeants trained to call in airstrikes from the field. One or perhaps both of the kits would be tested in live-fire demonstration in 2014.

The future of the PCAS program is tied to DARPA’s budget, and that budget is being squeezed. There was a time when “network-centric warfare” technology initiatives were safe atop the Pentagon’s list of priorities. Proponents of PCAS have joined the ranks of military technologists who are no longer taking funding for granted. To ensure that PCAS gets a fair hearing in budget talks, those proponents are trying to clear up what they regard as misperceptions about the PCAS program.

CLEARING THE AIR

Some in the Air Force have chafed at the PCAS plan to replace the pilot of an A-10 Warthog — the service’s venerable close-air support plane for three decades — with a computer for the 2014 demonstration. A JTAC would use a hand-held computer to direct the A-10 to drop a 500-pound bomb, fire a Maverick air-to-surface guided missile and 2.75-inch rockets, and strafe a target with its 30mm Gatling gun.

DARPA and its contractors caution against making too much of the plan to fly the A-10 by computer.

“The optionally piloted A-10 is purely a demonstration platform for PCAS technologies,” said Dave Bossert, who heads up Raytheon’s PCAS program. “Rockwell Collins’ autopilot is part of the Raytheon team to allow us to control the optionally piloted A-10 demonstration platform. The intent of PCAS is not to create a fleet of optionally piloted aircraft.”

“The PCAS technology is intended to be aerial platform-agnostic,” said Stephen Waller, the PCAS program manager. “For this particular demonstration, the A-10 was selected because it already possesses some of the attributes needed: targeting pods and an existing certified weapons delivery capability, for example.”

The project has been controversial for another reason, too. The Air Force Research Laboratory joined with DARPA in formulating PCAS as a step toward development of the MQ-X, a proposed successor to the Predator drone. With the future of MQ-X now uncertain, PCAS proponents have begun underscoring the technology’s potential use with any persistent unmanned aircraft and also with versions of traditionally piloted close-air support aircraft upgraded to receive target coordinates digitally.

“MQ-X is representative of a platform with future characteristics, such as increased speed, maneuverability, loadout and autonomy, over current platforms like Reaper and Predator,” Bossert said. “But all of the technologies being developed for PCAS can be used to improve close-air support for current manned and unmanned platforms, even if MQ-X never comes to pass.”

PCAS is concerned with “speeding the coordination process and ensuring more positive target handoffs,” Waller said. MQ-X “is one of several potential platforms” that could use PCAS, he said.

As it stands, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon are exploring competing approaches under $7 million study contracts awarded in April. DARPA also has hired technology contractors separately, including a $1 million contract awarded to Vuzix, of Rochester, N.Y., to deliver prototype glasses. Other contractors would develop software to display information inside the glasses, plus Android applications to link the JTACs to unmanned aircraft and their sensors.

Northrop and Raytheon are competing for the right to tie together these technologies into prototype kits.

If PCAS survives, one question is whether DARPA can afford to build and demonstrate two sets of prototypes. At the moment, plans call for picking a single contractor in October to start the program’s second phase, a $13 million project in which equipment would be built for the $27 million demonstration.

DARPA did not comment about the risk incumbent with ending the competition so early in the PCAS process.

REDUCING ODDS OF MISTAKES

DARPA says that what it is really after is a simpler CAS system enabled by advanced displays and networking technologies.

According to DARPA, 95 percent of close-air support strikes are called in via voice commands. JTACs must alternate between looking down at overhead video displayed on their hand-held Rover computers and looking out at targets with their naked eyes or through range-finding viewers. They must talk pilots onto the targets by radio, telling them what the target looks like and reading GPS coordinates derived from hard-copy maps. Codes, directions, wind speed, descriptions of the target and the possibility for collateral damage are all discussed in a dizzying litany that invites misinterpretation.

The process is time-consuming, taking anywhere from a half-hour to an hour. DARPA thinks it can reduce that time to six minutes by putting more information in front of JTACs and perhaps giving them the ability to use hand-held computers to release bombs from unmanned aircraft.

The high-technology kit enabling this revolution would have to be developed with the weight of the equipment in mind.

“No matter what JTAC we talked to, they all say the same thing,” Raytheon’s Bossert said. “They say, ‘Here’s my 70-, 80-, 90-pound rucksack. Here, put this on. You understand why we don’t want more weight in this new equipment?’”

The PCAS developers are listening.

“I think if we can give him the same weight with more capability, he’s probably happy,” Bossert said. “If we can give him more capability and drop the weight, then we’re heroes.”

DARPA wants the JTACs to be directly linked to the unmanned aircraft and their sensors, but the agency has challenged the contractors to do this without overburdening the JTACs.

“Flying the aircraft is largely automatic, with mission assistance from a distant ground control station, which serves as the JTAC’s ‘remote wingman,’” Waller said.

The kill chain would be shortened by connecting the JTACs directly to unmanned aircraft steered with the assistance of the loyal wingman. The planes would be at the ready, loitering nearby.

If the contractors succeed, the JTAC’s job of directing fire would be more precise with new technology. He would be able to see the area of potential collateral damage exactly; choose the best weapon for the job from among an aerial arsenal; designate multiple targets to be hit in a single run with different weapons; and do all of that with digital commands to the aircraft, removing the potential of verbal error. Today, that work is done by an operations center, which lengthens the kill chain. “The PCAS system is intended to provide the key aircraft information that the JTAC on the ground needs to know,” Waller said. “Where is the aircraft? How long can it stay? What sensors does it have that can help? What weapons does it have? And open access to command centers in the rear.”

SOFTENING THE MQ-X LINK

Proponents are trying to shift attention away from emphasis on any particular aircraft and toward the JTAC kit. “The platform is really just a truck,” Bossert said. “It’s really about a systems solution.”

From DARPA’s first meetings with prospective contractors in 2010, the industry has considered the program part of the workup toward the next generation Air Force UAV, the MQ-X, which is envisioned as being jet-powered and armed with the kind of weapons most valuable in close-air support: bombs, rockets and fire.

The Air Force Research Lab was scoping out the feasibility of the MQ-X, and it was also assigned the job of managing the PCAS contracts for DARPA.

Now, however, MQ-X is delayed while the Air Force refines its requirements and determines if and when to fit the aircraft’s development into a diminished budget.

A top goal of PCAS would be to take advantage of the persistence of armed unmanned planes, but DARPA has made clear since the outset of the program in 2010 that derivatives of today’s traditionally piloted CAS planes would also figure in.

DARPA also sees potential users among the other services and special operations forces.

“There are many potential technology transitions,” Waller said.

‘IRON MAN’

When Vinny Ferrer, chief engineer of Vuzix, talks about vision equipment for the JTAC of tomorrow, he goes to the movies: “You ever see ‘Iron Man?’” said Ferrer, referring to the film based on a comic-book character who builds an armored suit with a helmet that displays information to him. “That’s kind of how [the view] will look” in the company’s augmented reality glasses.

A JTAC would plug the glasses into a computer — laptop, tablet or smartphone.

“As you look through, you see the real world on the other side,” Ferrer said. “But you can draw symbols over that real world, icons overlaid to show distances to things, flight path of the A-10 or UAV, GPS locations of the JTAC and other people, other vehicles around — there’s a whole myriad of things that can be displayed.”

The symbols would be computer-projected holograms, including weapons-specific overlays showing the potential for collateral damage when a bomb or rocket explodes. The new glasses would be adapted from the company’s simpler Tac-Eye glasses, which Vuzix already supplies to the U.S. military.

DARPA has hired other contractors to develop software that would generate the overlays, along with Android-based technology to link JTACs with the sensors aboard aircraft.

The computer/glasses combination would provide exact positions of the target, friendly troops and non-combatants. A JTAC could send that information digitally to the armed airplane.

From its inception, more has been made about what PCAS could do than what DARPA says it intended it to do. Some observers worry that by shortening the kill chain, the JTAC would become omnipotent, taking over authority currently vested in a commander, and removing the potential safety mechanism offered by an on-the-scene pilot.

Waller counsels perspective.

“The PCAS program is a technology demonstration,” he said, stressing the traditional role of his agency. “DARPA is working closely with the operations community throughout the course of PCAS development to inform potential use decisions. The specific role PCAS would play in an operational setting would be up to the operators.”

The digital commands sent by the JTAC would be accompanied by voice communication. The various echelons would listen in and control the mission as they see fit. While PCAS would make a shortened kill chain a possibility, the decision to bring in fire would still be made with advice of multiple sources.

“The information from the JTAC goes on the network, and however they want to share that information is up to their different concept of operations,” said Bossert of the authority vested at the point of attack. “We’re not dictating CONOPS, we’re developing technology and the services can decide how to use that technology.”

He, too, tries to keep expectations in line.

“The overall purpose of PCAS is to decrease the timeline to support the JTAC request,” Bossert said. “The face of the program is the JTAC kit. It’s not the platform. And it’s not the concept of operations.”

It’s also not a road map for developing future airplanes, but if the PCAS demonstration proves successful in 2014, it offers a look at what future airplanes should be able to do.

This story appeared in the January-February edition of C4ISR Journal.

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