Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013: The Year in Sea Drones

What was the most significant development in unmanned naval systems for 2013?  Blog readers weighed in on this question and more during our survey.
  • Winning by a landslide, with 71% of the responses, was the successful carrier catapult shots and "traps" (arrested landings) of Northrop Grumman's X-47B.
ALANTIC OCEAN (Nov. 9, 2013) The experimental X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) conducts an arrested landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). Theodore Roosevelt is the third carrier to test the tailless, unmanned autonomous air craft's ability to integrate with carrier environment. (US Navy photo By Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Anthony N. Hilkowski/Released)
The number of helicopter drones, like this Spanish
Skeldar, grew throughout the world's fleets in 2013.

  • Related to #1, the U.S. Navy's ever-changing UCLASS RFP was the third most notable development as judged in our survey.
According to our web stats, other popular stories this year include:
  • All things related to unmanned system carrying motherships.  Ranging in size and variety from amphibious assault ships, nuclear submarines, to patrol boats, and RHIBs, navies are focused on identifying the most efficient and effective platforms to host UAVs, UUVs, and USVs.
Coastal Command Boat with embarked Knifefish UUV.
  • A BQM-74E target drone's impact on the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville that occurred during combat systems training in November. 
Workers apply a temporary patch to the starboard side of CG-62.
  • Reports of China's UAV swarms garnered some attention as they enhance the growing Anti-access/Area Denial capability in the Western Pacific.
    China's Sharp Sword UCAV made its first flight in 2013.
  • Iran reportedly mass-produced a ScanEagle imitation based on UAVs it has recovered or "captured" from the Persian Gulf. 
    Iran's ScanEagle factory - real capability or deceptive mock-ups?
  • Unmanned systems again played a major role in this year's International Mine Countermeasure Exercise (IMCMEX) in the Persian Gulf.
A U.S. Navy unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operator recovers a UUV after a successful run during International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 13 in Qatar May 14, 2013
 Did we miss any?  Post your thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Drones Get MAD

No, despite hype to the contrary, drones aren't getting angry and taking over the world.  But if the U.S. Navy gets its way, a new generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles might be getting Magnetic Anomaly Detectors, or MAD.  The Navy has issued two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) solicitations related to the incorporation of MAD sensors in UAVs.

A MAD is a device normally found on anti-submarine warfare aircraft that detects changes in the earth's magnetic field caused by a large metal object (i.e., a submarine). MAD sensors can be found in the tail of the P3 or towed behind an aircraft, in the case of the Navy's SH-60B helicopters, and are used in the final stages of target prosecution to pinpoint the submarine before weapons release.
Business end of a P-3 Orion sub-hunter showing the MAD boom.

The first SBIR solicitation is entitled "Low Magnetic Signature Expendable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)" and the goal of developing a "low magnetic signature, expendable Tier 1 UAV that can be launched from a P-8A or similar military aircraft via the sonobuoy launch system from high altitude, with the capability to carry a sensitive scalar magnetometer for ASW MAD with the requirement that the inherent UAV magnetic noise shall not limit the effectiveness of the MAD sensor."  This capability is required because the Navy has recently introduced the P-8A Poseidon (based on Boeing's 737) which cannot perform ASW at altitudes low enough (300-500 feet) to employ a MAD as the existing P-3C does.  The solicitation calls for a magnetically quiet UAV equipped with a low-cost Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) magnetometer currently in development.  The UAV would also carry a camera in an EO/IR turret system enabling it to distinguish a MAD hit as a surface or subsurface contact.  The UAV must fly pre-programmed tracks at 70 knots air speed for at least 70 minutes.  Moreover, the system should cost less than $5000 when purchased in quantities of 100.  Phases II and III would demonstrate in flight performance of all system features.
Boeing P-8A Poseidon

A related solicitation is entitled "Development of Analysis Techniques for Predicting Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) Equipped UAV Performance in Naval Anti-Submarine Warfare Environment."
This effort will develop a software-based Tactical Decision Aid (TDA) that will enable a mission commander to predict the probability of detection of a MAD-equipped UAV against current submarine threats.  The tool should consider MAD system performance, magnetic environmental noise, UAV performance, and other factors.  Essentially the tool will help the commander to decide whether or not to expend a UAV and orient the search tracks for that UAV to localize the target submarine.  Phase One proposals of the solicitations are due by 22 January 2014.

Launching UAVs from an ASW aircraft is not unprecedented. In 2009, an expendable sonobuoy tube-launched UAV called Coyote was tested out a NOAA's WP-3D Orion under an Office of Naval Research. A less successful small business grant was awarded to Lite Machines to modify its Voyeur UAV for sonochute launch.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Submarine-launched UAVs: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Last week, the U.S. Navy announced the launch of a fuel-cell powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, the XFC, from a submerged nuclear submarine. Interestingly, XFC is at least the fourth sub-launched UAS the Navy has demonstrated.  Previous efforts date back to 2005 and include the hand-launched Dragon Eye and FQM-151 and the sail-launched Buster.  More recently, the Navy first successfully launched a Switchblade from a submerged submarine in Exercise Trident Warrior 2010 using a successor to  Raytheon's Submarine Over the Horizon Organic Capabilities, or SOTHOC launch system.

Other efforts weren't so successful.  The German company Gabler designed the VOLANS (coVert OpticaL Airborne reconnaissance Naval adapted System), a mast-launcher concept which was not constructed. Even more interesting is Lockheed Skunkwork's ridiculously ambitious Cormorant UAV, which apparently never made it past the YouTube stage of development.

More successful however, has been the Tomahawk-land attack missile, which is essentially a one-way fire-and-forget unmanned aircraft that happens to have a 1,000 pound warhead.

But when it comes to conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, many herald the XFC's "new" capability as a game-changer, especially in support of special forces operating ashore.  The basic concept is for a submarine to quietly launch a force of special operators onto a beach and provide that force with over-watch or targeting assistance using the UAV.  Another purpose for sub-launched UAVs would be to extend the submarine's targeting range beyond a periscope and acoustic sensors.  Also, when prosecuting a high value surface target, giving the sub some stand-off to shoot torpedoes or possibly missiles has some tactical merit.  But do these capabilities outweigh the problems inherent  with submarine-launched UAVs?

The primary value of submarines in naval combat is stealth, simply due to the fact that an underwater object is extremely difficult to detect from on or above the ocean's surface.  When a submarine comes to periscope depth, a degree of that virtue is lost.  When a submarine launches weapons, UAVs, or transmits in the RF spectrum, its invisibility is put at further jeopardy.  Besides a possible risk of counter-detection, there are numerous complications with launching a UAV from a submerged submarine.  In addition to the obvious technical challenges of getting a vehicle to transition from a high pressure underwater environment to flight, water-proofing an aircraft's electrical and mechanical systems against saltwater submersion is problematic.

Time lapse shot of XFC sub-launch (USN Photo)
Aside from the Cormorant's implausible recovery scenario using a parachute and an ROV, sub-launched UAVs are designed to be disposable, just like any other weapon.  So they must be used sparingly, and likely only for high end wartime situations.  But over a decade of combat use has demonstrated that the best attribute of UAVs is persistent presence over a target, not one shot, one kill launches. Moreover, in the case of the XFC, torpedo-tube launched UAVs take precious magazine space from additional weapons.  Even so, XFC's fuel cell propulsion solves a sticky problem for the Navy, that of storing combustible UAV fuel onboard a submarine.

A sub must remain at periscope depth to maintain a data link to the UAV or possibly shift control to an air asset or ground station once the vehicle has been launched.  Presumably, if one of these other options were in the area, there wouldn't be a requirement to launch the UAV from a sub.  And there is no reason that special operators can't carry their own small tactical UAVs with them to the beach, eliminating the need for a sub-launched drone.

Despite these drawbacks, certainly the inherent low signature of submarines can be leveraged for unmanned vehicles, especially UUVs, which can be launched, recovered, and controlled by a submarine without having to come to PD.  At some point they Navy may need to come to grips with these issues and write sub-launched UAVs off as a novelty.  Alternatively, it may be possible to develop a UAS that mitigates the above challenges while providing capabilities not found elsewhere in the fleet, but a constrained fiscal environment will make that a challenging endeavor.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Non-traditional Drone Motherships - Cheaper & Better?

Earlier this week, guest blogger Mark Tempest posted some interesting ideas on low cost alternatives to traditional combatants which could be configured to carry unmanned surface vehicles, playing on the idea that payload truly is more important than platform.  These concepts are unorthodox, though as Mark points out, not unprecedented.  In a time of shrinking budgets and smaller fleets, the navy should explore how to optimize various combinations of ships and the unmanned vehicles they will carry, with an eye towards both effectiveness and efficiency.  Mine counter-measures is an important, though often short-changed mission, with various trade-offs between payload and platform.

Between the Littoral Combat Ship "seaframe" and mission modules, the U.S. Navy has invested billions of dollars in R&D and acquisition money to develop (though still not fully) the capability to conduct off-board, unmanned mine counter-measures.  LCS will carry the Remote Minehunting System, a rather large, complex, diesel-powered snorkeling vehicle which has been under development for about two decades.  RMS is designed to tow a side scan sonar in order to detect mines.  Contrast that arrangement with the Coastal Command Boat, pictured here with an embarked Kingfish, an unmanned underwater vehicle which essentially performs the same job as the RMS with its synthetic aperture sonar. The CCB, or the follow-on MK VI patrol boat can carry two of these UUVs.  A well deck equipped amphibious ship (LPD, LSD, LHD) could be configured to carry multiple MK VIs, resulting in the ability to rapidly deploy several UUVs over a wide area at any given time.  Additionally these patrol boats, or as Mark suggests, another Craft of Opportunity, could be forward deployed or prepositioned in various overseas ports, including ones too small or too politically sensitive to station a larger combatant.  An LCS can bring an MCM capability to a mine field at 40 knots, much more rapidly than dedicated MCM ship.  A C-17 with patrol boats and a UUV Det can transport MCM package at 10 times that fast.  Certainly there are other trade-offs in capability, cost, and versatility in all these options.

Given these emerging MCM alternatives, future fleet experimentation to identify other payload/platform configurations that can achieve the same operational results as the LCS/RMS package in a more affordable manner is certainly warranted.  Because of the relatively low cost involved in these platforms and UUVs, the answer doesn't have to be all or none and more than one alternative can be pursued without breaking the bank.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cheaper Corvettes: COOP and STUFT like that

If the answer to the Navy’s future is robotics, then Admiral Greenert’s July 2012 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings piece, “Payloads Over Platforms, Charting a New Course” opens up a whole new world of possibilities for using existing small ship platforms as “trucks” to deliver large numbers of modern weapons platforms to areas of interest.

As former Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work emphasized during his recent appearance on MIDRATS,  the Littoral Combat Ship is such a truck–a vehicle for delivering unmanned weapons system.

This post is meant to take that concept and cheapen it.
What is a corvette? Something smaller than frigate but larger than a patrol boat, I guess. The LCS in either of its variants is large at about 380 feet in length and displacing 2800 tons. A Gearing-class destroyer from post WWII measured in 390 feet and 3400 tons.  The Perry-class frigates are over 440 feet and 4100 tons.

Seems we have a lot of size and space to play with.
It occurs to me that we need to take the thinking that developed the WWII escort aircraft carrier (CVE) and model it down to a ship that is a “drone” carrier (and by “drone” I mean unmanned vessels of any type- surface, subsurface and aerial) – like the LCS only in the smaller economy version.

After all, if the real weapons systems toted by the LCS are its drones, then virtually any vessel capable of lowering said drones into the water or into the air and hosting their command and control system can be a “drone carrier,” too. Such a ship becomes a “mother ship” for the drones.
Are drone carriers are really “war ships?”  Remember, “payload over platform.”
Suppose we take a hull like an offshore oil platform supply “boats”  outfitted with a “surface warfare module” (yes, like that designed for the LCS) and four davits designed to lower four USVs into the water.

If the USVs are outfitted with torpedoes or missiles like those discussed here, and if you deploy them in the face of a threat, you now have a ship with capable weapons systems out there.
Other vessels might include large tuna clippers and small freighters.

Photo: San Diego Tuna Clipper (they already have a stern launch system)
Even better, you have now added complications to the targeting systems of any opponent because instead of having one vessel to engage, it now has five. Make up a small squadron of such mother ships (say 4 per squadron) and your opponent now faces 20 vessels.  These may consist of multiple threats- a squadron may have USVs in combinations of missiles, torpedoes or other weapons.
If the mother ships carry additional drones, the threat increases as each batch is placed in the water. Proper use of an aerial relay drone may allow the mother ships to be reasonably far from the action site, under the umbrella of a larger warship or some sort of converted floating offshore oil platform configured properly to “sea base” operations.

The drone mother ships will require a tender of some sort for fuel and other hotel services, but such a tender need not be elaborate nor expensive. Under the proper circumstances they might be shore supported.

One of the cost-saving features of this concept is that the drone mother ships might be acquired in a COTS fashion either by lease or purchase. Under an old U.S. Navy program (and one used by the Australians), there is precedent for using a “Craft of Opportunity Program (COOP)” to acquire vessels to experiment with. While the U.S. experience with COOP involved inshore mine hunting, the underlying concept is sound–lease or buy already built units that can meet the minimal standards of your “drone trucks”–and avoid the expense and delays of design and construction (albeit allowing for necessary modifications) .  The other expression for acquiring such ships is “STUFT”-”Ships Taken Up From Trade,” which the Royal Navy used to put together a force during the Falkland War in 1982.

These vessels can be minimally manned and are, in the famous phrase “expendable.” Since they deliver their weapons remotely, speed is not really an issue. Instead, deck space and electrical capacity will be important. Manning could be mixed CIVMAR, active and reserve Navy.
For example, an older diesel powered platform supply vessel capable of 12 knots and about 290 feet in length could work if properly outfitted. I suspect it, even with the appropriate modifications will not cost any close to even a cheap non-truck warship. Heavy lift a half dozen of these to where they are needed and you have a force multiplier on the cheap. Lots of deck space for vans, generators and cranes and perhaps even some self-protection bolt-ons.

Are they “corvettes?” Payload-wise they could be . . .
Of course, unlike a “standard” corvette but like the LCS, these drone carriers are dependent on modules.

Reprinted with permission from CIMSEC. Eagle1 is the nom de plume for Mark Tempest, who maintains his own blog EagleSpeak and co-hosts the popular Naval Affairs podcast “Midrats.” Mark is a retired attorney and former US Naval Reserve Captain (Surface Warfare).

Monday, November 11, 2013

2013 Naval Drones Survey

What are the latest trends in unmanned systems?  What technologies show the most promise to enhance future naval operations?  Readers of this site represent naval and industry professionals, academics, and other interested parties from more than 160 countries. We're offering an anonymous survey to understand this wealth of knowledge contained in our readers' insights and experience.  The results will be discussed in future posts in this space.  Please take a few minutes to respond to the 8 easy questions.

Link for mobile sites:

*Note - you will not be emailed, phoned, nor otherwise accosted for responding.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rand on USVs

 ODIM Brooke Ocean USV Concept
The U.S. Navy has experimented with Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) for several years now, but has not yet deployed any in operational roles.  At the direction of the Chief of Naval Operations, Assessment Division (OPNAV N81), the RAND Corp has released the definitive study on Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) for naval use.  The study analyzed the suitability of USVs for 62 different naval missions (yes, there are that many).  USVs were compared to other platforms, including manned, and unmanned (UUVs and UAVs).

According to the report, USVs are more suitable than other platforms in missions requiring longer endurance, higher power availability for payloads, and the ability to interface “cross domain” sensors and with other platforms above, on, and below the water.  The report also highlighted the favorability of this type of platform in dangerous anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environments, where they could collect intelligence, and conduct electronic warfare operations such as jamming and spoofing without risk to manned crews.  As we have discussed here before, advances in autonomy – especially as it relates to navigation and collision avoidance – and “assured communications” will be vital in helping USVs (and other unmanned platforms) to reach their potential in A2AD warfare.    Optional manning on larger USVs during certain aspects of the mission profile was another RAND recommendation to mitigate some of these concerns. 

A variety of other topics were addressed, including modularity, logistics, program sponsorship and acquisition.  The study briefly mentioned the issue of “community sponsorship,” which deals with what organization will own, operate, and maintain USVs, a topic with room for further exploration.  Naval aviation is more mature in this area with the recent establishment of unmanned and hybrid UAV squadrons.  The  study is worth reading for those interested in this emerging capability. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

New UUV Mothership Hits the Fleet: the Coastal Command Boat

(Aug. 11, 2013) A 65PB1101 coastal command patrol boat arrives in San Diego.
The patrol boat has increased capability over existing Navy Expeditionary
 Combat Command craft, including 24-hour mission capability,
 ergonomic equipment design, both remote and crew-served weapon
 systems and a robust communications suite. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr.
Donnell Evans/Released)
The U.S. Navy recently introduced the new 65 foot Coastal Command Boat (65PB1101) into the fleet.  Among other maritime security missions, CCB will test new concepts in employing unmanned underwater vehicles.  The one-of-a-kind vessel was developed following a 2008 Congressional earmark for $5 million.  After a transit from its building location in Bremerton, the SAFE Boat-manufactured CCB arrived in  Coronado, California in August where it been assigned to Coastal Riverine Group 1 (CRG-1).  CCB is a predecessor of the Navy's upcoming 85-foot Mark VI patrol boats, six of which have been planned for delivery in FY13/14.
The boat has been configured to operate the MK 18 Mod 2 Kingfish UUV for mine counter-measures operations.  Two of the 800 pound, 12 inch diameter UUVs sit in cradles on the stern of the CCB and are launched with the boat's hydraulic crane.  The Navy is considering deploying the CCB to the Middle East for operational testing sometime in the next year.  Operating up to day long missions from a shore base or even the well deck of a larger amphibious mothership, the CCB and MK VI PBs will deploy multiple mine-hunting UUVs. 
The Navy has also tested the  man-portable SeaFox mine neutralizer from rigid hull inflatable boats.  If equipped with SeaFox, the CCB and MK VI could not only find, but clear, detected mines, a capability that today is conducted with much larger dedicated mine countermeasures ships.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Unmanned Naval Helicopters Take-off in 2013

Manned (SH-60B) and unmanned (MQ-8B)
helicopters working together on
USS Halyburton (FFG 40) - Navy photo
The carrier take-off and arrested landings of the U.S. Navy's X-47B demonstrator have garnered significant press attention this year.  Less noticed however, is the rapid development of rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles in the world's navies.  Recent operational successes of Northrop Grumman's MQ-8B Fire Scout aboard U.S. Navy frigates have led to many countries recognizing the value of vertical take-off and landing UAVs for maritime use. 

International navies see the versatility and cost savings that unmanned rotary wing platforms can bring to maritime operations.  Like their manned counter-parts, these UAVs conduct a variety of missions including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; cargo resupply/vertical replenishment; and in some future conflict will perform armed interdiction at sea.  However, unlike the two or three hour endurance of manned helicopter missions, some of these UAVs can fly 12 or more hour sorties.  Other benefits include the ability for some models to land on smaller decks than manned aircraft, a much lower cost per flying hour, and importantly, limited risk to human aviators. Several international VTOL UAV projects have been recently unveiled or are under development, many of them based on proven light manned helicopter designs.  Starting with a known helicopter design reduces cost and technical risks and allows navies to pilot the aircraft in no-fail situations involving human passengers such as medical evacuations.

Poland has two designs in the works, the optionally-manned SW-4 SOLO and the smaller composite ILX-27, which will carry up to 300 kg in external armament.  In July, the Spanish Navy announced  a contract with Saab to deploy the Skeldar V-200 unmanned air system aboard its ships for counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

Russia’s Berkut Aero design bureau, in collaboration with  the United Arab Emirate’s Adcom Systems have announced plans to develop an unmanned combat air vehicle based on Russia’s two-seat coaxial Berkut VL helicopter. 

One of Schiebel's rapidly proliferating S-100s mysteriously crashed in al-Shabaab held Southern Somalia earlier this year, but in a successful turn-around, a Camcopter conducted at-sea trials with a Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic later this summer.

Back on the American front, in July, Northrop Grumman delivered the Navy's first improved MQ-8C, a platform largely driven by U.S. Special Operations Command's requirements for a longer endurance ship-launched aircraft capable of carrying heavier payloads including armament.  The Marine Corps' operational experimentation in Afghanistan with two of Lockheed Martin/Kaman's K-MAX unmanned cargo-resupply helicopters from 2011 until earlier this year was largely successful, but suspended in June when one of the aircraft crashed while delivering supplies to Camp Leatherneck in autonomous mode.  Because of this setback, Lockheed has improved K-MAX's autonomous capabilities, and added a high-definition video feed to provide the operator greater situational awareness.  Kaman has also begun to market the aircraft to foreign buyers.  Finally, a Navy Research Laboratory platform, the SA-400 Jackal, took its first flight this summer.

There are minimal barriers to VTOL UAVs wider introduction into the world's naval fleets over the next few years.  How much longer will it take for their numbers to exceed manned helicopters at sea?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Robotics at Sea: Supply Bots

Editor's Note: Operating a warship -- or any large vessel, for that matter -- is a very manpower intensive endeavor.  Although automation has improved engineering in particular, the basic functions of operating, maintaining, and cleaning a ship have remain relatively unchanged since steam replaced sail as a source of power.  Pile on training and war-fighting functions, and today's combatants require tireless efforts by their over-taxed crews, which have been reduced in the past decade for the sake of cost savings.   

The blog has discussed numerous air, surface, and undersea unmanned technologies that have begun to make their mark on naval operations.  The impact on robotics on naval technologies is not limited solely to vehicles. Here, LT Scott Cheney-Peters discusses a robotic technology that may assist future sailors with logistics management:

If you haven’t spent much time aboard a naval vessel, the Supply Department is the part of the ship charged with managing spare parts and ordering more. The Supply Department’s spaces also have a strange tendency to be the first fitted out with the nicest kit and upgrades. So it wouldn’t shock me to one day stroll in and find something like this:

A voice-activated storage unit with to help keep track of thousands of parts:

According to Danh Trinh, creator of the StorageBot:
The hardest parts to find were always those rare miscellaneous parts that were thrown somewhere into a “junk” bin. StorageBot solves the location problem by listening to my voice commands, processing the location of parts from a master database and then delivering the matching bins in a manner that only a robot can do!

Of course all the normal disclaimers bear stating: the system would need to be ruggedized, would likely have sea state restrictions, and each user would need to set up their voice recognition. Then again there’s the question of whether such a system would be worth it, or even practical. At a COTS or DIY price of roughly $700 (according to a article I can no longer access) the monetary burden doesn’t appear to high, and after all, Supply could never let one of the other shipboard “shops” get their hands on this tech first.

Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Leading the Blind: Teaching UCAV to See

By Lt Matt Hipple

In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock Holmes laments, “You [Watson] see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Such is the current lament of America’s fleet of UCAVs, UGV’s, and other assorted U_V’s: they have neither concept nor recognition of the world around them. To pass from remote drones living on the edges of combat to automated systems at the front, drones must cross the Rubicon of recognition.

To See
The UCAV is the best place to start, as the skies are the cleanest canvas upon which drones could cast their prying eyes. As with any surveillance system, the best ones are multi-faceted. Humans use their five senses and a good portion of deduction.  Touch is a bit too close for UCAV, smell and hearing would be both useless and uncomfortable at high speed, and taste would be awkward. Without that creative deductive spark, drones will need a bit more than a Mk 1 Eyeball. Along with radar, good examples for how a drone might literally “see” besides a basic radar picture are the likes of the layered optics of the ENVG (Enhanced Night Vision) or the RLS (Artillery Rocket Launch Spotter).

Operators for typical optical systems switch between different modes to understand a picture. A USN Mk38 Mod-2 24MM Bushmaster has a camera system with an Electro-Optical System (EOS), Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), and a laser range-finder. While a Mod-2 operator switches between the EOS and FLIR, in the ENVG, both modes are combined to create an NVG difficult to blind. For a drone, digital combination isn’t necessary, all inputs can be perceived by a computer at one time. Optical systems can also be put on multiple locations on the UCAV to aid in creating a 3D composite of the contact being viewed. Using an array of both EOS and FLIR systems simultaneously could allow drones to “see” targets in more varied and specific aspect than the human eye.

For the deployment of these sensors, the RLS is a good example of how sensors can “pass” targets to one another. In RLS, after target data is collected amongst audio and IR sensors, flagged threats are passed to the higher-grade FLIR for further designation and potential fire control solution. A UCAV outfitted with multiple camera systems could, in coordination with radar, pass detected targets within a certain parameter “up” to better sensors. Targets viewed in wide-angle scans (such as stealth aircraft only seen) can be passed “down” to radar with further scrutiny based on bearing. UCAV must be given a suite of sensors that would not merely serve a remote human operator, but for the specific utility of the UCAV itself that could take advantage of the broad-access of computer capabilities.

And Observe

In-game models for real-life comparison.
In-game models for real life comparison
However, this vast suite of ISR equipment still leaves a UCAV high-and-dry when it comes to target identification. Another officer suggested to me that, “for a computer to identify an air target, it has to have an infinite number of pictures of every angle and possibility.” With 3-D rendered models of desired aircraft, UCAV could have that infinite supply of pictures with varying sets of weapons and angles of light. If a UCAV can identify an aircraft’s course and speed, it would decrease that “range” of
comparison to other aircraft or a missiles by orienting that contact’s shape and all comparative models along that true motion axis. Whereas programs like facial recognition software build models from front-on pictures, we have the specifications on most if not all global aircraft. Just as searching the internet for this article, typing “Leading” into the search bar eliminates all returns without the word. In the same way, a UCAV could eliminate all fighter aircraft when looking at a Boeing 747. 3-D modeled comparisons sharpened by target-angle perspective comparisons could identify an airborne contact from any angle.

A UCAV also need not positively identify every single airborne target. A UCAV could be loaded with a set of parameters as well as a database limited to those aircraft of concern in the operating area. AEGIS flags threats by speed, trajectory, and other factors; so too could a UCAV gauge its interest level in a contact based on target angle and speed in relation to the Carrier Strike Group (CSG). Further, loading every conceivable aircraft into an onboard database is as sensible as training a pilot to recognize the make and model of every commercial aircraft on the planet. A scope of parameters for “non-military” could be loaded into a UCAV along with the specific models of regional aircraft-of-interest. The end-around of strapping external weapons to commercial aircraft or using those aircraft as weapons could be defeated by the previously noted course/speed parameters, as well as a database of weapons models.

Breaking Open the Black Box
The musings of an intrigued amateur will not solve these problems; our purpose here is to break open the black box of drone operations and start thinking about our next step. We take for granted the remote connections that allow our unmanned operations abroad, but leave a hideously soft underbelly for our drones to be compromised, destroyed, or surveilled at the slightest resistance. Success isn’t as simple as building the airframe and programming it to fly. For a truly successful UCAV, autonomy must be a central goal. A whole bevy of internal processes must be mastered, in particular the ability of the UCAV to conceive and understand the world around it. The more we parse out the problem, the more ideas we may provide to those who can execute them. I’m often told that, “if they could do this, they would have done it”… but there’s always the first time.

Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ships vs. UUVs for Mine Clearance - Not Mutually Exclusive

In the July issue of Proceedings (membership required), Royal Navy Commander John Craig argues for the retention of the U.S. Navy's mine countermeasures fleet primarily because unmanned underwater vehicles cannot replace them.  CDR Craig certainly has the credentials to comment smartly on this subject, having recently commanded Britain's 2nd Mine Countermeasures Squadron (2MCM).

Bottom mine seen from SeaFox system
camera (RN Photo)
The U.S. Navy eventually plans to dispose of its MCM ships (the MHC class mine hunters were previously decommissioned in the 2000s) with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) embarked with unmanned MCM systems as a planned replacement.  Regardless of the wisdom of this decision, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) have been embraced by the U.S. and other modern navies, and are being acquired at a rapid pace.  The gradual shift towards unmanned MCM systems is likely a reflection of shrinking defense budgets, but there are probably some operational advantages to be realized as technology and testing advances.

Craig's most compelling argument for retaining MCM ships is that "their greater sonar power increases the volume of water 'hunted' and improves the speed of advance. For classification, the operators who view the sonar picture in real-time can change the frequency of the sonar, allowing more accurate classification of contacts that appear amorphous at first glance."

His argument falls short though when he says that "for prosecution and neutralization, surface ships carry their own ROVs, including spares, and can embark and support an EOD diving team; UUVs cannot."  Well of course a small UUV can't do that.  But non-dedicated mine-hunting platforms such as the afloat forward staging bases demonstrated during IMCMEX 12 and 13 certainly can do those things and much more.  That said, it is not far-fetched to question the wisdom of putting large, metallic-hulled ships anywhere in the vicinity of a mine-field even though these AFSB and the LCS intend to conduct "off-board" MCM with their small boats or unmanned surface vessels launching UUVs from a safe distance. 

Another point that CDR Craig didn't make, but probably should have, is that MCM is a complicated operation and dedicated, single-mission crews can develop a proficiency in these operations much higher than the crew of a multi-purpose ship.  That issue can be mitigated however, by the use of dedicated special purpose mine-hunting detachments embarked upon the UUV mother-ships, which is the proposed concept for LCS.  Technology and fiscal realities may overcome CDR Craig's arguments in modern navies, though clearly, more experimentation is warranted to validate these new concepts.

Interestingly, Crew 1 of 2MCM recently returned from the Persian Gulf where they completed 100 runs with the SeaFox mine disposal system while aboard HMS Atherstone.  Replacing explosive ordnance divers and marine mammals with remotely-operated neutralization systems would have been unheard of a few decades ago, but is now commonplace and makes more sense than putting life in danger.  So it appears that although the UK is retaining a robust fleet of dedicated mine-hunting vessels, it too increasingly values unmanned MCM systems.

Read more on MCM with UUVs.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Video Game AI and the Future UCAV Top Gun

By Matt Hipple

Roomba is useful because it can sweep up regular messes without constant intervention, not because it can exit and enter its docking station independently. Although the Navy’s new X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) has, by landing on a carrier, executed an astounding feat even for humans, this ability only means our weapons have matured past their typical one-way trips. The real challenge will be getting a UCAV to defend units while sweeping up the enemy without remote guidance (i.e. autonomously). The answer is as close as the games running on your Xbox console.

Player One: Insert Coin
Considering the challenge of how an air-to-air UCAV might be programmed, recall that multiple generations of America’s youth have already fought untold legions of advanced UCAV’s. Developers have created artificial “intelligences” designed to combat a human opponent in operational and tactical scenarios with imperfect information; video games have paved the way for unmanned tactical computers.

A loose application of video game intelligence (VGI) would work because VGI is designed to operate in the constrained informational environment in which a real-life UCAV platform would operate. Good (i.e. fun) video game AI exists in the same fog of war constraints as their human opponents; the same radar, visual queues, and alerts are provided to the computer and human players. The tools to lift that veil for computer and human are the same. Often, difficulty levels in video games are not just based on the durability and damage of an enemy, but on the governors installed by programmers on a VGI to make competition fair with a human opponent. This is especially evident in Real Time Strategy (RTS), where the light-speed all-encompassing force management and resource calculations of a VGI can more often than not overwhelm the subtler, but slower, finesse of the human mind within the confines of the game. Those who wonder when humans will go to war using autonomous computers fail to see the virtual test-bed in which we already have, billions of times.

VGI may drive future
UCAV operations.
This Ain’t Galaga
Those uninitiated must understand how VGI has progressed by leaps and bounds from the pre-programmed paths of games such as the early 1980′s arcade shooter Galaga; computer opponents hunt, take cover, maneuver evasively, and change tactics based on opportunities or a sudden states of peril. The 2000′s Half-Life and HALO game series were especially lauded for their revolutions in AI – creating opponents that seemed rational, adapting to a player’s tactics. For the particular case of UCAV air-to-air engagements, since the number of flight combat simulators is innumerable, from Fighter Pilot on the Commodore 64 in 1984 to the Ace Combat series. Computers have been executing pursuit curves, displacement rolls, and defensive spirals against their human opponents since before I was born.

However, despite its utility, VGI is still augmented with many “illusions” of intelligence, mere pre-planned responses (PPR); the real prize is a true problem-solving VGI to drive a UCAV. That requires special programming and far more processing power. In a real UCAV, these VGI would be installed into a suite far more advanced than a single Pentium i7 or an Xbox. To initiate a learning and adapting problem-solving tactical computer, the DARPA SyNAPSE program offers new possibilities, especially when short-term analog reasoning is coordinated with messier evolutionary algorithms. Eventually, as different programs learn and succeed, they can be downloaded and replace the lesser adaptations on other UCAVs.

I’ve Got the Need, The Need For Speed
When pilots assert that they are more intuitive than computer programs, they are right; this is, however, like saying the amateur huntsman with an AR-15 is lesser trained than an Austrian Arabesquer. The advantage is not in the quality of tactical thought, but in the problem solving rate-of-fire and speed of physical action. A VGI executing air-to-air tactics in a UCAV can execute the OODA loop encompassing the whole of inputs much faster than the human mind, where humans may be faster or more intuitive in solving particular, focused problems due to creativity and intuition. Even with the new advanced HUD system in their helmets, a human being cannot integrate input from all sensors at an instant in time (let alone control other drones). Human pilots are also limited in their physical ability to maneuver. G-suits exist because our 4th and 5th generation fighters have abilities far in excess of what the human body is capable. This artificially lowers aircraft tactical performance to prevent the death or severe damage of the pilot inside.

Pinball Wizard: I Can’t See!
VGI doesn’t have a problem with the how, it’s the who that will be the greatest challenge when the lessons of VGI are integrated into a UCAV. In a video-game, the VGI is blessed with instant recognition; its enemy is automatically identified when units are revealed, their typology is provided instantly to both human and VGI. A UCAV unable to differentiate between different radar contacts or identify units via its sensors is at a disadvantage to its human comrades or enemies. Humans still dominate the field of integrating immediate quality analysis with ISR within the skull’s OODA loop. Even during the landing sequence, the UCAV cheated in a way by being fed certain amounts of positional data from the carrier.

We’ve passed the tutorial level of unmanned warfare; we’ve created the unmanned platforms capable of navigating the skies and a vast array of programs designed to drive tactical problems against human opponents. Before we pat ourselves on the back, we need to effectively integrate those capabilities into an independent platform.

Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.  Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, although he wishes they did.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Controlling Naval Drones from the Cockpit

Naval Postgraduate School students continue to do interesting work in the field of unmanned aviation. LCDR Eric McMullen, USN, and MAJ Shane Grass, USA, conducted a research project entitled "Effects of UAV Supervisory Control on F-18 Formation Flight Performance in a Simulator Environment."

The increase in cockpit workload attributed to new technologies and the shift from two-seat to single seat naval aircraft is taxing human mental capacity.   The Navy envisions that some day swarms of unmanned aircraft will be controlled at least in part by onboard flight crew and the research was designed to gage the impacts of this idea on flight performance.

Data for the study was collected from 34 Navy and Marine aviators who flew three five-minute F-18 simulator sessions where their performance in formation flying was compared during two secondary distraction tasks. The "traditional" task was target persecution with a electro-optical Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) pod while the futuristic task was the integration of supervisory command and control for a small group of semi-autonomous UAVs.  The aviators controlled the simulated UAVs utilizing tablet computers running an application called the Semi-Autonomous Wingman Control Interface (SASWI).
Naval aviator tests ability to control UAV while flying in formation.
The study concluded that controlling a UAV from the cockpit was significantly more challenging than traditional secondary tasks.  The knowledge gained from the study may some day contribute to improved crew resource management (CRM) and pilot workload management as well as flight safety resulting from the modification of flight procedures.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Defeating IEDs with USVs

This concept proposal explores a technology solution to the problem of risk to first responders when identifying, neutralizing, and exploiting “surface-floating” maritime improvised explosive devices (SF/MIEDs).

When considering the proliferation of technology for use against land-based improvised explosive devices (IEDs), it may be puzzling to many observers why remote IED Defeat (IEDD) technologies (particularly robots) have yet to fully cross over into the maritime domain.  Although some unmanned underwater vehicle programs designed for limpet mine-like object detection on ships are in development , much less attention has been given to countering SF/MIEDs. In general, the purpose of MIEDs is to destroy, incapacitate, harass, divert, or distract targets such as ships, maritime critical infrastructure and key resources (CI/KR), and personnel. MIEDs may also present obstacles (real or perceived) with the purpose of area denial or egress denial. As a subset of the MIED family, the “surface-floating” MIED operates on the water’s surface in environments such as harbors, the littorals, the riparian, and the open ocean. It may be either free floating or self-propelled, with remote control (manual or pre-programmed) or with no control (moves with the current). It is a tempting low-tech, low-cost option for an adversary.

Thankfully, SF/MIED incidents have been rare in recent times, the last significant use occurring during the Vietnam war. Nonetheless, a capability gap is presented by the challenge they present—namely, that a human must unnecessarily expose themselves to the object.  One material solution to a surface-floating IED may be to develop an IED Defeat Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) around a design philosophy based on IEDD robots used in land warfare. Protection of high value units and critical infrastructure / key resources would be its primary missions along with counter-area denial. Its most likely operating environment would be CI/KR dense areas such as harbors and seaports as well as the riparian environment since rivers are constricted in the water space available to shipping to maneuver around SF/MIED threats. A key element of design philosophy in an IEDD USV would be to meet the expectations of the customer—the first responder. Military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) units and civilian bomb squads are much more likely to accept a platform in which the console and all other human interface features are nearly identical in look, placement, feel, and responsiveness as the most popular robots they have been accustomed to operating such as the TALON robot by QinetiQ and Packbot by iRobot.

Does the Navy need a maritime equivalent
of the Talon Counter-IED robot?
A functional hierarchy could be drawn around major tasks such as reacquisition of a suspected surface-floating IED, identify/classify, threat removal, neutralization, and recovery of the IED for exploitation. Modularized payload packages to execute these tasks may include a towing package, an attachments package (e.g. hooks, magnets), a neutralization tool package to include both precision and general disruption EOD tools, an explosives, chemical, and radiological detection package, and an electronic counter-measures package.

Numerous trade-offs between weight, power, stability, and the complexity of modular packages would need to be considered and tested, however, variants like a “high-low” combination of a complex and simple USV working together may minimize some of the trade-off risk.  If an IEDD USV were to be developed key recommendations include:
• Official liaison between NAVSEA between PMS-406 (Unmanned Maritime Systems) and PMS-408 (EOD/CREW program) to ensure the transfer of USV expertise between PMS divisions.
• A DOTMLPF assessment to determine whether limpet mines or surface-floating IEDs are more likely and more dangerous to U.S. assets and personnel given the uncertainty of future naval operations.
• Including civilian bomb squads in the design and development process early to increase the potential for demand and cross-over with the law enforcement sector and therefore reduced long term
program costs.

Current UUV programs being developed include the Hull UUV Localization System (HULS) and Hovering Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (HAUV).

This article was reprinted with the permission of the author, Commander Jeremy Thompson, U.S. Navy/ Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Drones for Maritime Activism

The Blackfish has integrated the use of unmanned air vehicles in support of their marine wildlife protection operations.  Blackfish's UAS were provided by Laurens De Groot's organization ShadowView, who supplies UAVs to non-profits for conservation projects.  The group flew initial demonstration sorties with a quad-rotor over a harbor and is looking to improve their UAS capabilities to fly longer range missions over the open water in an effort to expose illegal driftnet fishing in the Mediterranean.

The Blackfish joins the ranks of a growing number of non-governmental organizations using UAVs for maritime surveillance operations including Sea Shepherd Conservation SocietyEarthrace Conservation, and Greenpeace.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dronenet in Action

See Part I on dronenets here.  History is full of instances where war and militaries drove innovations that bled into the commercial marketplace.  The information era has turned that trend on its head.  The "DomiCopter" below might be more publicity stunt than reality, but the operational concept is sound.

Unmanned K-Max helicopters are saving Marine lives every day in Afghanistan and reducing the cost of intra-theater lift.  Some day a similar dronenet will take over many of the vertical replenishment requirements for naval ships at sea, leaving manned rotary wing aircraft for higher value missions such as scouting and attack. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Assessing UAV Survivability

An oft-cited draw-back of unmanned air systems is their vulnerability to a variety of threats including both physical, such as anti-aircraft fire, and electronic, including jamming.  Researchers and industry are beginning to more seriously examine these threats as the number of drones operating proliferates.
How do UAVs stack up against these various threats, especially in the maritime environment?

On the physical side, depending on what altitude they are operating, maritime UAVs face similar threats to helicopters and patrol aircraft.  Small tactical UAS flying surveillance missions at relatively low altitudes over-land or water are vulnerable to the simplest anti-aircraft threat, small arms fire.  In 2011, a Fire Scout UAV operating from USS Halyburton (FFG 40) over Libya was shot down by some sort of ground fire.  While flying over-water, drones might face close-in-weapons systems ranging from 20-30 mm to larger naval guns in the 57mm to 155 mm range.  Recently, Naval Post Graduate School Systems Engineering – Test Pilot School Co-Op students Lieutenants Jacob King and Jared Wolcott completed research on ScanEagle survivability against small arms.  Their analysis shows that the overall probability of kill in a given scenario may exceed 50% against a 12.7 mm (.50 caliber) weapon, and that the greatest driving factor in the UAV’s survivability is its slant range to the threat. They recommend upgrades to optics modules to allow the aircraft to operate at higher altitudes which will reduce the probability of detection, increase the aiming error and ballistic dispersion, and possibly eliminate small arms threats altogether by flying above and outside enemy weapons range.  Future low-altitude maritime UAS will also be vulnerable to shoot-down from directed energy weapons, such as the laser system which will deploy onboard USS Ponce later this summer.

Moving up the spectrum of vulnerabilities, there are several publically-released incidents which provide anecdotal evidence on combat losses of UAVs from surface-to-air missiles and manned aircraft.  In August 1995, a Predator was shot down over Bosnia.  Another Pred was shot down over Kosovo in May 1999 by a 1960s era Soviet Strela surface-to-air missile. Another Pred was also reportedly killed by a helicopter door gunner. An Iraqi Mig-25 downed another MQ-1 over Iraq on December 23, 2002.  The Air Force equipped some Predators with Stinger air-to-air missiles in 2002, but had little success in countering the Iraqi air threat.  In 2012, Iranian SU-25s tried unsuccessfully to shoot down U.S. Predators over the Arabian Gulf.  Also in 2012, Israeli F-16s shot down an Iranian tactical UAV over Israeli territory, then did so again off the coast of Haifa in April 2013.  Against modern naval SAMs, lower, slower-flying UAVs would likely be highly vulnerable. 

There is little reason that compact chaff and flare systems could not be integrated onto most medium and large size UAS platforms to offer them some passive protection from these threats. Perhaps the highest end protective system against shoulder-launched surface to air missiles is the Directional Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM), which has been fitted on a variety of U.S. fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.  DIRCM detects, tracks, and jams infra-red guided missiles using a FLIR and laser.  Raytheon's Common Infrared Counter-Measures (CIRCM) is designed to be lightweight enough for large UAS platforms.  Higher-end UAVs, such as the X-47B, feature infrared and radar signature reduction characteristics, though these measures are not cost-effective on tactical UAVs.

Jamming, spoofing, and environments where communications links and even GPS navigation are jammed are an emerging threat to UAVs.   On 4 December 2011, Iran's cyber warfare unit allegedly brought down a U.S. RQ-170 surveillance UAV in some sort of controlled manner.  Enhancing autonomy is one way to add resiliency to UAS operating in an electromagnetically-contested environment. Boeing performed some interesting work on bio-inspired autonomy with ScanEagles, one of the most numerous UAVs operating at sea today.  The goal of this experimentation was for the UAVs operating in a swarm of vehicles to form a beyond line of site (BLOS) relay network.  In addition to relaying UAV surveillance data and telemetry over-the horizon without the use of satellite communications, the project demonstrated the ability of a ScanEagle to fly autonomously through a jammed environment, then exfiltrate the data collected via the BLOS relay once it exited the denied area.  Read more here on UAV communications relays.

One of primary desirable attributes of unmanned aircraft, especially smaller, less expensive types, is that combat losses are much more acceptable than with manned aircraft.  Though as the NPS study notes, "the loss of a small UAV does not incur any loss of life or a large cost, the potential loss of the ISR mission it performs is becoming increasingly important to the combatant commanders. The survivability discipline must be applied to UAVs to ensure that these assets become more survivable and can complete their assigned missions in a higher threat environment." 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

IMCMEX 13 - New Drones, New Tactics

Unmanned naval systems played a significant role during last year's International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX). This year, more than 40 nations will operate 18 Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) in the Persian Gulf during what has become arguably the world's premiere mine counter-measures demonstration.  IMCMEX 13 has also been expanded to include maritime infrastructure protection (MIP) and maritime security operations (MSO) mission sets.  The exercise is breaking new ground both in platforms and tactics.

As with MCMEX 12, USS Ponce will be a major focus area, demonstrating trials of various sorts of mother ship configurations to expedite the deployment of UUVs into suspected mine fields.  This experimentation offers a hedge to mitigate risk against the still yet to be operational Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) mine warfare mission package.  Conceivably, a well-deck equipped amphibious ship could launch MK 18 Mod 2 Kingfish UUVs at a higher rate (via RHIBs) surveying more water-space than an LCS equipped with an RMS towing a side scan sonar. 

16 April 2013 - In preparation for IMCMEX, personnel assigned to Commander, Task Group 52.3, test a stern gate launch and recovery trailer while embarked aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS  Ponce (AFSB(I) 15).    

14 May 2013 - Sailors aboard USS Gladiator (MCM 11) launch a Seafox mine hunting unmanned underwater vehicle. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Colby Drake/Released)

Note, Seafox is replacing the much bulkier and prone-to-break legacy AN/SLQ-48 Mine Neutralization System on the MCM class ships.  UK minesweepers are also utilizing Seafox during the exercise.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

X-47B Sea Trials - A BFD

My twitter feed was abuzz today with statements lauding this morning's launch of the U.S. X-47B unmanned carrier air system from USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77):
"...another great first for naval aviation...History has just been made...Momento histórico...the Next Era of Naval Aviation...Launch Catapults Naval Aviation into the Future...New era in warfare...MOMENTOUS...Watershed...a pivotal milestone in naval technology," etc.

There is a bit of truth in all of these.  Though perhaps the event is best summarized in the words of Vice President Biden.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Saving Money with Common Control Systems

In a previous post, we cited funding threats to U.S. Navy unmanned systems programs and specifically called out ONR for some questionable R&D efforts.  In an effort towards fairness, the below video explains how ONR is working with other partners on a Common Control System for unmanned vehicles which will provide joint interoperability and produce a significant return on investment.  CCS is a hardware-agnostic tool using Kutta Tech's Bi-Directional Remote Video Transceiver to not only view sensor feeds from UAVs, but to control the sensors themselves and reduce operator workload.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

India Looks to Prevent Another Mumbai Attack With UAVs

India's growing unmanned aerial vehicle fleet is being put through its paces in defending against a future Mumbai-style complex terrorist attack.  During a 48-hour long exercise, Gemini-2, UAVs from the Navy’s 342 Air Squadron cued patrol boats and coastal police to thwart mock terrorists attempting to infiltrate Southern India's shoreline from the sea.  The first iteration of Gemini was held in November 2012 and other multi-agency coastal security exercises ('Sagar Kavach') have been conducted frequently since the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on Mumbai in 2008.

India's ground-based tactical Searcher MK II and longer-ranged Heron UAVs are a component of a more comprehensive maritime observation network consisting of manned aircraft, cooperating fishermen, and coastal surveillance radars and cameras installed in 90 light houses along India's 7,500 km coastline.  India's army and air force are also acquiring some small tactical UAVs to support anti-terror surveillance in urban areas.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Estimating Cost Savings for UCLASS

The past few years has seen a mostly uninformed tit for tat in the media and blogosphere regarding the costs of operating unmanned vehicles, especially when it comes to the personnel involved in operating and supporting them.  Those favoring drones often overlook the back-end costs of analyzing large amounts of data gathered by persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.  Those in support of manned aircraft discount the ability of single operators to control one or more autonomous aircraft, the fact that training and proficiency requirements are much lower for drone operators than manned aviators, and often mistakenly compare cost platform for platform rather than total time on station, or "orbits."

As the U.S. Navy plans significant investments in programs such as the UCLASS aircraft, additional analysis will need to be undertaken in order to develop more accurate long term budgets for these systems.  Towards this end, Commander Gary Lazzaro, a student at the Naval Postgraduate School, conducted research to develop some more concrete estimates.

In his recent thesis entitled "Manpower Requirements Estimation For Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance And Strike Squadrons," CDR Lazzaro performed qualitative and quantitative comparisons of the operators, maintainers and squadron support required to run a notional future UCLASS squadron.   The research looked at two scenarios: the squadron as a single deployable unit or a unit with a shore component and deployable detachments. 
Lazzaro expects that both UCLASS squadron configurations would result in a smaller footprint and lower manpower requirements
than existing F/A-18F squadrons. The research recommended a UCLASS squadron configured with a shore component and five detachments, which has an estimated total manpower requirement for 103 officers and 540
enlisted personnel.

CDR Lazzaro concluded that the manpower cost of a UCLASS squadron configured with five detachments would be $61.8 million a year less than the cost of five F/A-18F squadrons.  Granted the capability and mission sets of these two platforms is not an apples for apples comparison, with each type of aircraft having pros and cons.  But the analysis is an important first step in understanding future life cycle cost for aircraft which will make up a large portion of carrier flight decks within a few decades.