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Unmanned aerial vehicles | UAVs

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Boeing Aims ATS Program At UK's LANCA, May Move Faster
Bradley Perrett Tony Osborne July 27, 2020

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Boeing may accelerate development of its Airpower Teaming System (ATS) to begin deliveries before the middle of the decade, amid what it says is unexpectedly strong early interest in the loyal-wingman drone. The ATS is evidently the basis of the company’s offer for the UK’s Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) initiative.

The possibility of operating the ATS or a derivative from British aircraft carriers is raising the question of how the type is intended to be deployed, an issue that Boeing has declined to discuss in detail. Evidence points to one possibility for land operation being containerized dispersal by road, rocket-assisted launch from a rail, and recovery to a runway or road.

The first of three ATS prototypes will taxi soon, says the program chief, Shane Arnott, reiterating that the first flight is due this year.

Boeing is developing the ATS in Australia with support from the Royal Australian Air Force, for which the program is research work on manned-unmanned teaming. For Boeing, it is creating a product for the international market. The company unveiled the ATS in February 2019 and rolled out the first prototype in May 2020.

Arnott said in May that the first-production ATS could be completed around the middle of the decade or a little earlier. Speaking to reporters on July 16, he said the schedule had not changed. But he then referred to high interest in the product and added that the schedule might be advanced. “Everyone is trying to solve the same problem” of achieving mass—large numbers—in an air campaign, he says, adding that many military aviation services were reaching out to see if the ATS could solve the issue.

Kratos, builder of the conceptually similar XQ-58 Valkyrie drone, has also attracted interest from possible buyers apart from its primary customer, the U.S. Air Force.

For LANCA, Boeing Autonomous Systems is working with Marshall Aerospace and Cranfield University and submitted a proposal in the northern spring. The Boeing-led team was one of three chosen for Phase 1. One or two of those teams will be selected for Phase 2, called Mosquito, a £30-50 million ($38-64 million) initiative that will lead to the candidates producing flightworthy demonstrators for a UK-based flight-test program.

Since Arnott says LANCA is a key activity for the ATS program, it is clear that the Boeing proposal to Britain is based on the loyal wingman. “Safe to say that the problems being presented in Australia are similar to the problems being presented in the UK,” Arnott says. “LANCA and Mosquito have similar requirements [to Australia]: an affordable platform to be developed in one-fifth of the time.”

Australia has allowed Boeing to share ATS design materials with Britain. Arnott would not comment on the level of information released. Discussions with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and its Rapid Capabilities Office have extended to the Royal Navy, he says.
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The RAF envisions an aircraft derived from LANCA’s Mosquito phase being used on the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, alongside Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightnings, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston said at the RAF’s Air and Space Conference during a webinar on July 15.

But how could the ATS operate at sea? Indeed, how is it supposed to operate on land?

Asked about the apparent reliance of the ATS on vulnerable airfields, Boeing autonomous aviation executive Jerad Hayes told Aviation Week in May: “We recognize the need for the system not to be bound by traditional runway operations to meet the rising-threat conops [concept of operations]. This is core to the ATS design to enable that flexibility of distributed operations to the customer.”

The landing gear for the ATS is clearly not designed for rough fields, so distributed operation implies dispersal by truck and rocket-assisted takeoff from a mobile rail launcher; less flexibly, it might also use straight stretches of road. Rail launch has been used by many aircraft types for decades, including the Valkyrie. Boeing has been careful not to show the rear of the ATS. One reason could be to hide stealth features there, but another could be to avoid disclosing provision for a takeoff rocket or two.

The Valkyrie lands by parachute, but since the ATS has landing gear, it must be intended to recover to an airfield or a road. The Boeing type has a considerable range, presumably ferry range, of 3,700 km (2,000 nm), so it may be able to reach a safe airfield well behind its launch point.

The aircraft’s length is 11.7 m (38 ft.). The wing is built of two pieces, upper and lower, that appear to be unbroken from tip to tip. Conceivably, the wing could be removed and placed on top of the fuselage. The result: a package that might go into a 40-ft. shipping container for storage, transportation and deceptive deployment, with many empty containers lying about to keep an enemy guessing.

Compact stowage, probably stacked, would be valuable on an aircraft carrier.

An ATS probably could not take off from a deck at a useful weight on only turbofan thrust (likely not much more than 3,000 lb.). But rail launch, or perhaps a rocket-assisted deck run, could be used.

At first sight, deck landing looks improbable. But it may not be impossible for a drone that could conceivably achieve a precision touchdown at a low sink rate acceptable to its landing gear. If the carrier moved at 20 kt. (10.3 m/sec. or 38 ft./sec.) and a returning drone, lightly constructed and just about empty of fuel, could approach at 100 kt., touchdown speed relative to the deck would be 41 m/sec. Deceleration at 5 m/sec.2 by brakes alone would bring it to a halt in 170 m. The British carriers are 280 m long.

Also, the UK Defense Ministry last year called on industry to devise means of arrested recovery for shipboard drones. A further option for the long-legged ATS would be landing at an airfield.

Other bidders in Phase 1 of LANCA are Team Blackdawn, a consortium of Callen-Lenz working with Bombardier Belfast and Northrop Grumman UK; and Team Avenger, led by Blue Bear Systems Research and several undisclosed partners.

Low cost is a key ATS project aim: Boeing believes the aircraft must be cheap enough to be attrited. To this end, the company is heavily automating the production process—using robots to build these robots, Arnott says. Payloads, in detachable and swappable noses, may cost more than the rest of the airframe, he adds, though this will be up to the customer.

Since several ATS aircraft could together form one large array, very cheap sensor payloads could outperform elaborate, costly systems fitted to single aircraft, Boeing points out, apparently referring to passive radio.

As part of ATS development, Boeing has demonstrated an end-to-end mission in which three small jet drones autonomously took off, assembled in formation, departed from formation and landed. The speeds were up to 200 kph (108 kt.). This showed that the mission system worked, says Emily Hughes, director of Boeing Phantom Works International.

The test was done at Tara, west of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Boeing intends to use a specialist drone test facility that Qinetiq is setting up at Cloncurry in outback Queensland.
 

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General Atomics unveils ‘ultra-long endurance’ replacement for MQ-9 Reaper

By Garrett Reim

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has unveiled a rendering of its next-generation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike unmanned air vehicle (UAV) as a proposed replacement of the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) MQ-9A Reaper.

The flying-wing aircraft is designed to have “ultra-long endurance”, General Atomics president David Alexander said on 14 September.

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Source: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Rendering of General Atomics’ next-generation UAV, a possible replacement for the USAF’s MQ-9A Reaper


“We’re embracing ultra-long endurance, to keep our next-generation ISR [and strike UAV] in the fight for longer periods than many ever imagined possible,” he says. The company’s proposed aircraft will have the “ability to stay engaged in the fight far longer than current-generation [UAVs]”, Alexander adds.

The USAF’s MQ-9A has an endurance of 27h, while the US Army’s MQ-1C Grey Eagle Extended Range can be flown for up to 42h.
“Our advancements in propulsion technology will give commanders a longer reach than ever before,” says Alexander of the new UAV. The company has not disclosed what sort of engine the aircraft would use.

The long, thin flying-wing design of the UAV also appears to have a high aspect, giving the aircraft a better lift-to-drag ratio, which would be helpful for efficiently flying for long periods of time.

The flying-wing design also is inherently stealthy, as the shape has fewer angles to reflect radar than a traditional tube-and-wing airframe. To further hide itself from radar, the UAV only has small slits for engine inlets which are set behind its leading edge. Jet turbine blades, with their many edges and twists, are highly reflective of radar, so concealing their features helps to reduce an aircraft’s radar cross section.

The General Atomics UAV unveiling comes after the USAF released a request for information in June calling for ideas to replace its MQ-9 starting in 2030. The service has become worried that the aircraft, which was designed for ISR and strike missions against terrorists and insurgents, is vulnerable to sophisticated radar-guided surface-to-air missiles that are fielded by China and Russia.

In addition to long-endurance and stealth, General Atomics says it wants its next-generation UAV to be a highly reliable node in the USAF’s battlefield network.

“We believe it is imperative that future unmanned systems are able to communicate, share information, and collaborate – together, and intuitively with their human counterparts – across systems and domains in record time,” says Alexander.

The company aims to rely on different forms of aircraft autonomy, including artificial intelligence programs, to reduce the manpower needed to fly the aircraft and speed up the pace at which ISR information is gathered, digested and passed along.

“Our focus on automation and autonomous capabilities stems from an understanding that the increased speed and intensity of future warfare requires a similarly agile and intelligent set of systems – not just to reduce manpower and enable operations with minimal personnel, but also to reduce the burden on the tactical data transport network in contested communications environments,” says Alexander. “Our next-generation ISR/Strike UAS will reshape the battlefield of tomorrow by compressing the ’observe, orient, decide, and act [OODA] loop’.”

To quickly and continuously upgrade the UAV with the latest technologies, such as new sensors or more advanced computer processors, the company says it will have an open systems architecture and modular design. The aircraft is also designed to be interoperable with equipment outside the USAF’s inventory, the firm says.
 

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Did the US Marine Corps give up on a big ship-based surveillance drone too soon?

By: David B. Larter  
23 Sept 2020
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Did the Marine Corps cut bait too soon on a ship-launched, long-range ISR drone? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been pursuing such a capability in its Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, or TERN surveillance drone. (DARPA)


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps both say they need expanded surveillance capabilities for a potential fight with China, but the Marines have cut bait on a big, ship-based system that some analysts say would make a big difference for both services.

The Chief of Naval Operations' air warfare lead said earlier this month that every carrier strike group commander needs more surveillance, and he wants to find a way to get more pure intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones flying off the flight decks of Navy ships as soon as possible.

That aligns with the Marine Corps' goals of having more ISR and network connectivity resident in the amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit construct, as it is in the carrier strike group with the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. But with the Marine Corps moving away from a large unmanned platform known as the “Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary,” it’s unclear if the Navy and Marine Corps will be able to find common ground on the way forward.

When asked if the Navy was moving toward more organic ISR on Navy flight decks, Air Warfare Director Rear Adm. Gregory Harris told the virtual audience at the annual Tailhook symposium that he was trying to find alignment with the Marine Corps’ need for a medium-altitude, long endurance drone system.

“Every strike group wants to know more and more and more about his battlespace,” Harris said. "As we look at future vertical lift and the Marine Corps looks at their MUX or Medium Altitude Long Endurance system, [we’re talking] about how we can find synergy between the Marine Corps and the Navy’s pieces of the MUX/MALE program and our future vertical life (unmanned portion) — we want to bring that as far left as we possibly can in terms of synergy between the Navy and Marine Corps.

“But I promise you there is not a strike group commander or fleet commander that can get enough ISR out there. And that aspect, from a distributed maritime operations standpoint, what we can bring from the strike group whether it comes off a carrier, a DDG or the future frigate or comes off Triton, that is fantastic.”

The Marines were examining a tilt-rotor drone that could take off from from a DDG or a big-deck amphibious ship, but Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder told USNI News in March that the Marines couldn’t get the kind of range and endurance they wanted from a tilt-rotor done while packing all the power and cooling it needed for high-end communications and early warning systems.

“What we discovered with the MUX program is that it’s going to require a family of systems. The initial requirement had a long list of very critical requirements, but when we did the analysis and tried to fit it inside one air vehicle,” they realized they had competing needs, Rudder told USNI.

“With a family of systems approach, my sense is we’re going to have an air vehicle that can do some of the requirements, some of the higher-end requirements, potentially from a land-based high-endurance vehicle, but we’re still going to maintain a shipboard capability, it just may not be as big as we originally configured.”

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The Marine Corps is working with industry to help inform needs for its large drone. The Bell V-247 “Vigilant” Tiltrotor Unmanned Aerial System is a potential competitor for the Corps' MUX requirement. (Courtesy/Bell Helicopter)

‘Suboptimal’
Analysts are divided on whether that’s the right idea. Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and consultant with The FerryBridge Group, said the Marines gave up too early on the concept, and that it works against the Marine’s stated goal of becoming an arm of naval power.

“The Marine Corps wishes to go forward fast, and that is a land-based, medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV solution,” McGrath said. “I think it’s suboptimal. I think it is a blow to this whole concept of integrated American naval power.”

Packing all that capability into a land-based system tethers the capability to basing rights agreements. But another consideration is that capability will be at the mercy of the theater commander, which means the Marines may get less use out of them than they anticipate.

“I believe the Marines will find that those assets will be a lot more difficult to keep control of than they think they will be with respect to tasking once they are in theater.” McGrath said. "There will be customers for those ISR assets that will greatly exceed the tactical level of the requirement.

“I think the Marines are making a mistake not working closely with the Navy to come up with an organic, ship-based MALE solution. All this does is push the horizon for such a necessary component of the ISR-T grid for the Western Pacific even further into the future. And all for a suboptimal, short-term approach to trying to solve its problems, and I think they are going to find that it will not solve their problems.”

But the Marines are nothing if not aggressive, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger has clearly prioritized speed in his quest to reshape the service. Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and analyst with The Heritage Foundation thinks that’s the right approach.

“I think they have to go separate paths,” Wood said when asked about the Marines' embrace of land-based air. "I think the more you combine multi-service efforts into a single program, it gets bogged down by all the competing requirements.

“The expense goes up, the ability to deliver capability ends up being less than was originally hoped for. And then these competing, or even conflicting requirements clash and it mucks up the whole thing.”

Breaking the MUX program into multiple systems has the advantage of spreading out capabilities, and relying on platforms already in production will speed everything along, Wood said.

“I’m a huge advocate of prototyping and trying multiple paths, and that costs a bit of money to do that, but you end up with a variety of platforms, all with unique contributions to the overall capability set,” he said.

“The Navy has a habit of loading on additional requirements. They look for very robust, long-lifespan capabilities. And of course, the expense and complexity go up. Manufacturing time goes up. There is a delay in getting a capability in the fleet. I like the Marine Corps' aggressive posture: There is a sense of urgency.”
 

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German, French defense ministers push for Eurodrone progress

By: Sebastian Sprenger  
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Airbus, Dassault and Leonardo unveiled their first mock-up of the envisioned Eurodrone at the 2018 Berlin Air Show. (Sebastian Sprenger/Staff)

COLOGNE, Germany — The defense ministers of Germany and France have pushed for speedy progress in the Eurodrone program, urging member nations to initiate the aircraft’s development phase before the end of the year.

The high-level endorsement means a shot in the arm for a weapons program that has slipped under the radar since Airbus, Dassault and Leonardo unveiled a mock-up drone at the April 2018 Berlin Air Show.

While French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said she hopes to see the next phase begin by year’s end, her German counterpart, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, expressed hope any outstanding issues, which mostly involve cost, could be resolved “in the next few weeks.”

The two leaders spoke at Manching, Germany, Airbus' hub for the Eurodrone project and a company site for another key European program, the Future Combat Air System.

The unmanned aircraft’s official name is “European MALE RPAS,” using acronyms for medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft system. The pan-European Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation manages it on behalf of Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

The drone program sets out to field the first new unmanned aircraft certified to fully integrate into civilian airspace, though European authorities have not yet finalized the requisite regulatory framework. Company officials hope that key design features of the drone, such as a propulsion system of two engines — one as a fallback, if necessary — will be conducive to passing future safety checks.

That means the technology could cut into the business strategy of American competitor General Atomics. The company aims to be the first to sell its drones, complete with automatic collision-avoidance kit, to Europeans.

Officials at the German Defence Ministry did not immediately return a request for comment on how soon the government plans to present a financing and contract strategy to lawmakers — a prerequisite for letting the effort proceed.

It remains to be seen if the weapons-capable Eurodrone, whose primary mission is intelligence gathering, will get wrapped up in Germany’s debate on the ethical aspects of arming aerial and ground robots.

Another program, the Israeli-made Heron TP drone, is still awaiting decision by Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, on whether the government can proceed with installing weapons on the aircraft. The German military is using the drones to watch over deployed forces under a leasing agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries. They are operationally managed by Airbus.

It’s possible that the Heron TP armament decision will be presented to the Bundestag first, thus capping what a Defence Ministry official told Defense News will likely be a lengthy public meditation on drones and war.

But that sequence of approvals is not automatic, Airbus hopes.

Either way, time is of the essence for the Defence Ministry, with election years looming in Germany and France starting in 2021.

“It would be surprising if we had the Eurodrone first,” said Ulrike Franke, a London-based analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Because it would amount to a signal that the Heron TP decision had been needlessly stalled.”

Questions surrounding the program include whether it can provide enough utility beyond offerings already on the market, including American-made hardware, Franke said. Its success also depends on countries purchasing the future drone in sufficient quantities to get the envisioned benefits of greater European interoperability, she added.
 

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Sparrowhawk Aircraft-Launched sUAS Tested​


General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) has conducted flight tests of its Sparrowhawk small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS), which is designed as a captive-carry system that can be launched from larger GA-ASI aerial platforms. Designed around the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System attritableONE technologies, the Sparrowhawk is an iteration of the DARPA Gremlins Program, which aims to develop airborne drone recovery to reduce the cost of operation and provide new mission capabilities.

The Sparrowhawk sUAS was attached to an MQ-9A unmanned aircraft, and controlled exclusively using GA-ASI’s Metis Software Defined Control Station. Metis was hosted on a laptop computer, which significantly reduced the system’s logistical footprint and supports the vision for battlefield UAV control interfaces that do not require a Ground Control Station shelter or vehicle.

The test team communicated with the Sparrowhawk meshONE datalink, enabling collaborative autonomy capabilities among both platforms. The Cooperation in Denied Environments (CODE) autonomy engine was also implemented in order to further trial cognitive Artificial Intelligence (AI) processing for unmanned systems.

These test flights follow on from those conducted with a Gray Eagle UAS that carried two Area-I Altius-600 Air Launched Effects (ALEs) during Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) demonstrations.

Sparrowhawk and UAV airborne recovery also provide a range of other benefits:
  • Below-the-weather ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and reduced visual and acoustic ISR
  • Attritable ISR/EW (electronic warfare) in the contested environment, allowing the MQ-9 to stand off at safe ranges
  • Use of larger and more expensive payloads at greater transit ranges compared to ground-launched aircraft and air-launched expendables
  • Maintaining the chain of custody, through adverse weather, MQ-9 rotations, or with multiple targets
David R. Alexander, President of GA-ASI, commented: “Sparrowhawk extends and multiplies MQ-9-based sensors, reduces manpower and increases ISR coverage. With attritableONE technology that is survivable and precise, Sparrowhawk is a true game changer.”

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There’s ever more push on developing military drones in west, which hints that drones would be playing a central role in all future wars.
 

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Double the firepower: MQ-9 tests flying with eight Hellfire missiles


An MQ-9A Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron sits on the ramp at Creech Air Force Base carrying eight Hellfire missiles. This was the first flight test of the MQ-9 carrying double its normal payload of Hellfires. (SrA Haley Stevens/Air Force)

The Air Force last month conducted the first flight of an MQ-9A Reaper that had been configured to carry eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles — twice the number the drone normally carries.

The 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada conducted the flight test on Sept. 10, the Air Force said in a Wednesday release.

A software upgrade expected to be rolled out to MQ-9s by the end of the calendar year made the expanded Hellfire capacity possible, the Air Force said. In the past, Reapers could carry no more than four Hellfires, two on the outboard station of each wing.

But with the upgrade, stations that were previously used for fuel tanks or 500-pound bombs can be used for Hellfires.

Master Sgt. Melvin French, the program’s test system configuration manager, said in the release that the hardware and launchers that now can be used to carry Hellfires are the same as the original stations used.

The precision Ninja bomb is also kitted out with six internal blades that can cut through buildings or cars with ease.
J.D. Simkins

“Aside from the extra hardware required to be on-hand, no other changes are required to support this new capability and added lethality,” French said in the release. "The Reaper retains its flexibility to fly 500-pound bombs on any of these stations, instead of the AGM‑114s, when mission requirements dictate.”

Adding the flexibility to carry more Hellfires will let the Reaper meet the needs of both Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command, the release said.

In the past, the Air Force said, the Reaper has run out of firepower during its long missions, which sometimes resulted in waits for a freshly armed backup to arrive before a target could be struck.

The Air Force needs the Reaper to be able to find and immediately strike high-priority targets — some of whom are only vulnerable for fleeting periods of time — as well as defend friendly forces isolated on the ground. Giving the Reaper more firepower will allow it to keep engaging the enemy during its long sorties, which often go for hours on end.

“History has proven the MQ-9′s ability to provide aerial continuity and attack support for air and ground forces during counter-insurgency and close air support,” said 556th commander Lt. Col. Michael Chmielewski. “Doubling the firepower of this high-endurance aircraft with Hellfires improves the lethality and agility of the MQ-9 over many combat roles, with an arsenal of highly versatile, accurate, and collateral-friendly weapons for all combatant commanders.”

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