November 3, 2011
Controlling the drones during the battle
An interesting report on Military.com illustrates how crews piloting the latest version of the U.S. Army’s Apache attack helicopter will be able to control unmanned aircrafts during battles.
The Apache will be the first aircraft where the pilots will be able to control drones, according to Lt. Col. Dan Bailey, an Apache pilot who is the U.S. Army’s project manager for the new attack helicopter. Crews flying the older Apaches often communicate with drone operators by radio during missions. Crews in the new Apaches will be able to see the same video that a drone operator sees on their screens. They will even be able to take control of a drone to fly it to way points and zoom its cameras and sensors in on targets.
The Apache Block III program will add open systems architecture electronics to create more standardization and “switchability,” extended range sensing, extended-range fire control radar, extended range missiles, wideband network communications for high-bandwidth networking, and high capacity data fusion computers to merge off- and on-board sensor imagery into a single shared picture of the battlefield.
One of the planned electronic enhancements to the AH-64D Block III include advanced “Level IV” control of UAVs from inside the helicopter. Level IV means that the pilot in the chopper can do everything but launch and land his drone: he can steer the UAV and its sensors and see everything it sees. For the delicate tasks of launching and landing, the pilot hands over control to an operator on the ground.
The Block III's UAV control installation (its so-called "tactical control data-link radio") fits inside the same mast-mounted radome in which the Longbow fire-control radar is fitted on D-model Apache.
Despite cuts to some of the unmanned components of the U.S. Army's ambitious Future Combat Systems in the 2008 budget, the U.S. service is driving on with development of the systems and procedures for controlling aerial drones from manned helicopters.
The U.S. Army first proved the concept of UAV-chopper teaming six years ago, according to Larry Plaster, Boeing's director of Apache modernization. "We did a test program in conjunction with the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, called Aviation Manned-Unmanned System Technology Demonstration Program, and we demonstrated Level IV UAV control."
As already discussed in this blog, several U.S. Army's organizations were recently involved in the first ever Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capability exercise (MUSIC), where a live demonstration was held before an audience of leaders from across the US Department of Defense as well as civilian onlookers. The event established seamless integration of Apache Block II and Kiowa Warrior helicopters, along with the US Army's complete fleet of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which is comprised of the Raven, Puma, Hunter, Shadow and Gray Eagle. Video was exchanged flawlessly among all the systems. Additionally, the ability to control the UAS payloads of the larger aircraft were demonstrated.
On the piloted side were an Apache AH-64D Longbow attack helicopter and an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter. The Apache established communications with a MQ-1C Gray Eagle—the Army’s largest unmanned aircraft—while both were in flight over the airfield. The helicopter crew received video from the Gray Eagle just like they would from their own on-board sensors, then relayed the signal to a new Universal Ground Control Station.
“We can use the drone as a remote sensor to identify hostiles,” said Lt. Col. Dan Bailey. “That drone is now part of our Apache but it is forward where we might not want to be. I think it is going to be a huge game changer for the Army.”
“There are places in Afghanistan that the current aircraft can’t fly,” Bailey said. “With the upgrades, we will be able to go to those places where the enemy tends to hide from us.”
References: Military.com (1), Boeing (2), DefenseIndustryDaily (3), AviationWeek (4)