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Redstone Arsenal is home to the Army's Unmanned Aviation Fleet

Mar 14, 2011

By Marty Shelton, Wyle/CAS,Inc (Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office)

Many residents of Huntsville, Alabama and the greater Tennessee Valley area have heard the term drone, unmanned aerial vehicle, or unmanned aircraft. Maybe you have heard the names Gray Eagle, Shadow, Hunter or Raven unmanned aircraft. What you might not realize is that these aircraft belong to the Army aviation community and have been in service for nearly two decades.

All Army unmanned aircraft found in service today have been hand selected and acquired by the persons assigned to the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office (UAS PO), located on Redstone Arsenal. According to Tim Owings, Deputy Project Manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Unmanned systems have become the intersection of the Army. "We have seen explosive growth across all echelons of our systems as they have become the critical link that ties the army's aviation, intelligence, communications, and maneuver communities together. The best part is we are just getting started with no shortage of new ideas or possibilities on the horizon." The Army's fleet of unmanned aircraft continues to prove its worth in combat.

Since the onset of combat operations the unmanned aircraft fleet has logged over 1.2 million flight hours in support U.S. service members and our allies. Operational usage of these unmanned systems has increased over 47 times since 2003. The Army UAS PO is one of seven organizations under the Program Executive Office for Aviation and organized to provide a comprehensive management and technical approach to the life cycle of the overall Army unmanned aircraft system (UAS) program. This approach also includes development, acquisition, testing, integration, and logistics requirements regarding the Army's unmanned aircraft fleet. Unmanned aircraft systems directly support the core mission of Army tactical commanders by providing near-real time, highly accurate, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.

This mission has grown to include manned/unmanned teaming, interoperability, aerial communications relay and weaponization. With the increased demand by the Warfighter for more unmanned aircraft systems, the UAS PO is poised to keep pace with increased demands while continuing to make crucial upgrades and advancements in technology. These technological advances will make great contributions to the economy of Northern Alabama as well.

The UAS PO and their partners in Apache Project Office and Armed Scout Helicopter Project Office have been key players in the effort to field new technologies that are the crux of Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). This is simply the teaming of a piloted aircraft with one or more unmanned aircraft. MUM-T allows the pilot of an Apache, for example, to take control of one or more payloads carried on board the unmanned aircraft. In the near future this will include the ability to remotely pilot an unmanned aircraft from the cockpit of an Apache or Kiowa helicopter. This teaming approach is becoming more prevalent due to technological advances that continue to be achieved. In the past, some in Army aviation may have been doubtful of the utility of the unmanned fleet. However, those reservations have been replaced by an acknowledgement that they can fly safer and with greater impact when teamed with these same UAS's. Once relegated solely to Intelligence, Surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, the Army UAS fleet has now been embraced by the Aviation community.

Continued support for new unmanned aircraft systems initiatives, including Office of the Secretary of Defense task force, led in the development of Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) technologies, and the Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capabilities Demonstration Exercise (MUSIC) taking place later this year. The Common Systems Integrations Product Office (CSI PdO), UAS PO, serves as the lead agency for planning and conducting the MUSIC exercise. This will be the largest "hybrid" aviation exercise ever attempted and will facilitate the advanced development of both manned and unmanned air vehicles and lead to the increased use of unmanned aircraft systems in the National Airspace System (NAS).

Owings adds, "The demonstration this fall will only last a couple hours but will represent 5 years of strategic planning and execution that will result in unprecedented integration between man aviation, unmanned aviation, and the soldier on the ground. The ability to tie a tactical thread between soldiers and their eyes in the sky is what we have steadfastly worked towards."

One major capability that will be demonstrated at the MUSIC exercise will involve the unmanned aircraft Gray Eagle, Shadow, and Hunter platforms, operating off a Universal Ground Control Station (UGCS). Think of the UGCS as a universal remote control, allowing the unmanned pilot to control multiple unmanned aircraft and technology packages on those aircraft. The UGCS supports interoperability by providing common hardware and software functionality across the UAS platforms. This will be the first time a single Ground Control Station (GCS) will demonstrate its ability to control various unmanned aviation platforms.

Currently, there is a ground control station for each specific number and type of aircraft. The introduction of the universal ground station will decrease the required number of "control stations" and personnel. This demonstration will help pave the path toward the concept of the universal operator, in which a single operator could be qualified to control multiple unmanned aircraft, thus increasing the flexibility and effectiveness of UAS in the field. The final puzzle piece that will allow the Apache, Kiowa, Gray Eagle and Shadow to work as one team is the addition of OSRVT functionality integrated into the Apache and Kiowa cockpits. The OSRVT functionality allows pilots within these aircraft to take control of Gray Eagle and Shadow sensors, in essence placing the hunting dog out ahead of the hunter.

The relevance and added value of receiving UAS sensor video in the cockpit of an Army manned aircraft was proven tactically in theater with the fielding of an Apache helicopter battalion in 2009, which took MUM-T to a new level. MUM-T integrates air-ground operations using manned systems and unmanned systems to accomplish reconnaissance, attack, lift and command and control missions to enable decisive action at the time and place of the maneuver commander's choosing. In 2009, for the first time, Apache crews could use the sensor on the UAS just as they use a sensor on-board their own aircraft, except that the UAS sensor could be located 50-80 kilometers forward of the Apache. This new capability enabled the crew to locate, identify and target the enemy, then share the information in real-time with friendly forces, while providing an unprecedented standoff range from threat weapons.

Additionally, the One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT) will be demonstrating its new bi-directional capability that allows the OSRVT operator to control the payloads of the large AVs, as well as the receiving of video from the Small Family of Systems (FoS) and the Apache helicopters. The payloads consist of cameras, communication relay devices, laser designators, and weapons. With over 1800 systems already in field, the OSRVT has served as a key component in improved battle management by enhancing a soldier's situational awareness. Increasing the Interoperability of systems-to-systems has been a top objective of the Army for years. Interoperability translates into cost savings and increased efficiency, helping to mitigate the ever-increasing threat to the Warfighter due to advancements in enemy technology.

Recognizing this, the UAS PO has been diligently working to shift the focus of its platforms from a system-level perspective to a capabilities perspective. The UAS PO will conduct a large-scale exercise of its unmanned aviations assets, along with the Apache PO and Armed Scout Helicopter Project Office, to establish proof of the system's ability to interoperate. The 2011 MUSIC Exercise will provide a glimpse into the vast array of capabilities being brought to the field. With the 2011 Exercise planning and coordination in full- swing, the UAS PO is looking to the future, with a possible 2013 MUSIC Exercise that would demonstrate future capabilities, as well as joint interoperability, across the service. The UAS PO looks forward to bringing our Warfighter and soldiers the benefits of enhanced capabilities demonstrated in the MUSIC Exercise.

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