WASHINGTON — Hoverfly’s unmanned aircraft systems can fly for a month and are quickly deployable and barely detectable, and the company thinks its tethered UAS can scratch the U.S. Army’s itch when it comes to providing a multitude of capabilities the service needs.
The service has already put some of the firm’s tethered UAS to use. Most notably, its smaller system — LiveSky — was used during a robotics and autonomous demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia, this summer where it was tethered to a Polaris MRZR, which can be manned or unmanned, to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in advance of a tank unit moving out into position on a battlefield.
Tethered drones are nothing new, but in this case, the Kevlar-strength tether provides power to a small quadcopter, giving it the ability to fly for up to 20 to 30 days, Hoverfly CEO Rob Topping told Defense News during an Oct. 11 interview at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference. The tether and the drone are very difficult to detect, unlike large white balloons — the tethered UAS system of choice at forward operating bases in places like Afghanistan.
The UAS can fly up to 400 feet, the length of the tether.
The Army is going to have to operate on the tactical edge, staying highly mobile and avoiding detection by peer adversaries, who have the capability to detect frequencies and heat signatures in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Problems with current small drones is they can’t remain in the air long enough for thorough or persistent reconnaissance. A tethered drone on a small vehicle can move, unmanned, out into a position of advantage and provide consistent ISR, keeping soldiers out of harm’s way and also lightening the load, as the user doesn’t need to continuously control the drone in flight.
The drone can be launched and recovered while the supporting vehicle moves, and the system can autonomously shift midair; so even if it’s detected, it becomes very difficult to shoot down, Topping said.
It takes roughly two-and-a-half minutes to launch the UAS off the roof of a small vehicle and get a full picture of the battle space, according to the executive.
The system is equipped with batteries for safe landing should the tether lose power, and it is able to self-protect against such dangers as lightning.
LiveSky and a larger system — BigSky — are operated over a secure, live network, said Topping, and so the UAS can either be operated by someone very close to the drone or remotely from a tactical operations center.
The controls are extremely simple with only five buttons to directionally orient the system and to manage payloads, so training takes roughly six hours, “but that’s only because we take a long lunch,” Topping joked.
The Hoverfly solution was designed in 2010, and the company has sold thousands of the systems to a wide variety of sectors such as the movie industry and the New York City Fire Department, Topping said.
The NYC Fire Department uses the UAS to conduct overwatch of the city for 3-alarm fires or greater. It can also quickly position the system during a fire and, using a thermal imagery payload, detect the hot spots and where other dangers exist on the scene.
The UAS is the only one certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in New York to fly in class B airspace.
The drones have also been tested out along the U.S. southwest border where law enforcement walked into the desert. The UAS’ payload, consisting of an electro-optical/infrared sensor and a broadcast-quality video feed, could pick up the officers’ every movement from a great distance, including the ability to see one of them pick up a two-by-four and point it at the drone as if aiming a gun, Topping described.
The company has even brought its systems down to Puerto Rico to evaluate their utility in natural disaster recovery.
Topping said he envisions the system aiding the Army across many echelons, from the squad level and much higher — from force protection, to communications relay, to counter-fires solutions, which require persistent eyes-on-target.
There is a growing recognition of the utility of tethered drones like the ones Hoverfly produces, Topping said, because it allows sensors to become permanent or mobile, and provide much greater range while offering a new level of protection to the soldier. And it’s a disruptive capability when you compare the cost between sending a manned helicopter or other aircraft to conduct reconnaissance and the cost of deploying a Hoverfly system.
The Army is actively seeking out tethered UAS options. Its Rapid Equipping Force released a request for information in August looking for tethered UAS for “small combat outposts, route clearance elements and retrograde operations to maintain [ISR] capability on the battlefield and extend the operational coverage of both FM and Soldier Wave Radio communications and data.”
The RFI also states the UAS should be a vertical takeoff and landing solution that is persistent and rapidly deployable to be used at forward outposts in “austere, harsh environments.”