ORLANDO, FLA. — Walk around the show floor at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) annual conference, and you can see unmanned systems — or drones, if you want to anger the attendees — of all shapes and sizes, for all mission sets.
There’s no paucity of options for a discerning buyer, whether one wants a small, hand-launched device a soldier can carry in a backpack or a behemoth system capable of dropping a pinpointed missile from thousands of feet above.
But that’s the current selection, leaving some to question what a next-generation unmanned system would look like.
Asked what market trends he sees for the future, Michael Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, told an audience that the ability to defend itself in contested environments is No. 1 on his list.
“I don’t know if it’s all stealth or all countermeasures, but whatever we make for future platforms is going to have to have some sort of capability to fly in contested airspace,” Blades said. “You need to be in a contested environment because the people that are bad to us are going to have more access to surface-to-air, air-to-air platforms. There are countries out there right now developing air-to-air UAS to shoot down what we have.
“So you’re going to have to have some sort of stealth, defensive capabilities — passive sensors, where you can see stuff and people can’t tell that you’re seeing stuff,” as well as secure communications links, Blades said. “Those are the kind of technologies we’re going to need for the future.”
During his presentation at the show, Blades added one other future requirement.
“Anything that can be armed, will be armed,” he said.
Col. Kenneth Callahan, the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) capabilities division director, expects a next-generation system to be modular.
“We don’t have money for niche capabilities,” Callahan said. “So my guess is it would absolutely be multirole, but that’s where modularity comes in. I want to be able to put pods on and off that can [carry] different things. I want to be able to put weapons and extra fuel tanks on and off, if that is useful for whatever I’m using it for.
“We always like faster, more lethal,” he said. “Those are things that will evolve with every new platform. I have no doubt that we’ll be talking about remotely piloted aircraft that can fly for days instead of hours.”
Callahan also points to the back-end communications and bandwidth aspects as being just as important to a “very powerful next-generation platform” as the design of the system itself.
What timeframe should industry expect? “If you looked at it on paper looking at business rules, we would start in the 2020s looking at a next-gen platform,” Callahan said. “What we’ve realized is we need to do it [sooner], because there are going to be huge jumps in technology that we’ll need to address.”
With new technology comes new approaches to how unmanned system are used, said Col. John McCurdy, director for remotely piloted aircraft programs at the Air Force Academy. In a speech at the show, he laid out future operations for RPAs.
“I see RPAs taking on all the combat roles of manned aircraft eventually,” McCurdy said. But that doesn’t mean things will have to be done traditionally. He envisioned a world in which a manned aircraft could be tied to a swarming fleet of unmanned systems, capable of acting both as a large aperture creating data and as a protective system for the manned, commanding vehicle, all in a semi-autonomous method.
“How many UAVs would it take to win against an F-22?” McCurdy said. “Surely less than it would take to win against an F-22 guarded by a swarm of UAVs.”
To make the swarm a reality, the Pentagon would need to invest in smaller unmanned systems — and new support technology.
“Small vehicles are inherently stealthy and most combat UAVs should be designed with this in mind. In other words, we don’t want to just keep getting bigger and bigger,” McCurdy said. “To capitalize on the inherent qualities of UAVs means making them small. But they also need to bring long endurance and persistence, which means the ability to refuel or recharge in flight. Remote recharging would be ideal, perhaps by some sort of directed-energy transmission.”
Callahan acknowledged that a future platform could be designed with another service.
“I think we could,” Callahan said. “The problems that we start to have are if [the Navy is] trying to launch it off the carrier you have to build some things to beef it up that we may not need and may not want to pay for. But the parts, I think, will be very similar. I think we will have co-design.”
Callahan pointed to the Air Force’s Global Hawk and the Navy’s Triton as an example of two services using a variation of the same platform and sharing parts, leading to potential savings for maintenance. That is applicable for sensors and weaponry that could be shared, Callahan said.
“If I can get a sensor that mounts on different platforms, whether it’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, whatever, you buy the sensor and all the parts and then it’s just buying a common adapter to where pretty much anybody can use it,” he said.
In the short term, interoperability between the services could act as a force multiplier for the Pentagon’s unmanned fleet. Of course, interoperability means something very different for a man on the ground.
“The soldier wants that piece of data so he can make a decision,” US Army Col. Keith Hauk said. “It doesn’t really matter where that feed, where that piece of information, comes from. He just wants it so he can use it.” ■