Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Industry unveils new unmanned aircraft technology

At a major ground warfare technology exhibition this week, some of the most noticeable products displayed by companies were unmanned aircraft and systems to defend from drone attacks.

AeroVironment — the manufacturer of Army drones such as the Raven and Puma — unveiled a new tiny unmanned aircraft at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference this week in Washington, D.C.

Known as the Snipe, the system weighs 130 grams, can loiter for 20 minutes and has a range of 1 kilometer. It also comes equipped with an electro-optic and infrared camera, said David Sharpin, vice president of UAS business development at AeroVironment’s unmanned aircraft systems division.

The company will deliver 20 to 30 prototype devices to the Army by the spring of 2017, he said.

Snipe would be an ideal platform to use in a city, he said. “We want this to be able to interoperate with the soldier,” he said. “We want it to be able to look around buildings, under vehicles.”

Eventually AeroVironment want to make the system fully autonomous, he added.

Snipe — a quadcopter with four rotors — does not resemble AeroVironment’s Hummingbird system that it built alongside the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency years ago, but when it comes to the guts of the system, engineers took much of it from the avian-like UAS, Sharpin said.

“We took some of that technology and the things we had done with Hummingbird and put it into Snipe,” he said. If “you look at it … it’s not going to be a direct translation, but some of the software and way it works” was gleaned from Hummingbird.

The company also recently announced a $22.8 million contract for the Block 10C Switchblade lethal miniature aerial missile system and support services, he said. The system has been used since 2011. It offers soldiers force protection and strike capabilities up to 10 kilometers away from its launch location.

Additionally, the company introduced a remote-controlled multi-pack launcher for the Switchblade and the company’s Blackwing UAV.

In a draft version of the Army’s Robotic and Autonomous Systems Strategy that was given to reporters, the service said that it intends to purchase unmanned systems “to maintain overmatch and win in a complex world.”

It will use robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) to increase soldier’s situational awareness, the document said. “Complex terrain and enemy countermeasures limit soldiers’ abilities to see and fight at the battalion level and below. Advancements in RAS allow for persistent surveillance and reconnaissance over wide areas.”

Col. Courtney Cote, Army project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, said the capability small unmanned systems provide are useful for soldiers.

Small UAVs offer the “greatest opportunity to present actionable intelligence at the individual level,” he told National Defense. “That’s where you put the most capability at the lowest echelon. [It’s] putting capability in the hands of individual soldiers as opposed to large assets that people have to gather data from then translate” into actionable items.

In the coming years, his office would like to procure a small system that fills a gap between the Puma and Raven, he said. Both are small systems, with the Puma fulfilling a long-range role and the Raven satisfying a medium-range need.

The new system would be a short-range micro drone, he said. “Some people kind of characterize that as a quadcopter,” he said. Currently there isn’t funding for the system, but PM UAS hopes to put out a request for information in the next few years, he said.

The government is also looking at ways to counter drones employed by enemies. From a system crashing into the lawn of the White House, to an unmanned aerial vehicle landing in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the potential threats of unmanned aircraft have become well known.

In order to have an effective counter-UAS approach, the military will to do three things, said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North.

“You’ve got to be to detect it. Second, you’ve got to be able to identify it — so figure out what it is and whether this thing is benign or malevolent. And then … have the option of defeating it,” he said Oct. 5 during a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.

There are a variety of ways to disable the system, from shooting it down with a kinetic weapon to jamming the signal that controls it, he said. The military does have the means to defeat such systems, he said.

However, “our ability to detect and identify is kind of lagging behind the means of defeat,” he said.

The Northern Command area of responsibility is very complex when it comes to unmanned systems, he said. In the United States, drones have become common sights as the price of commercial systems drop.

“It’s one thing to have an ability to shoot something down, but … we operate in a nation of laws which are based on the Constitution and Americans have individual rights,” he said. “We operate in concert with that and just because we see something doesn’t mean obviously that we could shoot it down, even if we could identify it as something that might be threatening to us.”

Industry has responded to this need by developing systems that the government or military can use to stop a rogue drone.

Battelle’s DroneDefender, which debuted last year, is a man portable, non-kinetic counter-UAS platform. The system, which resembles a rifle, can be used to disrupt the control link between a UAV pilot and a small drone.

So far, Battelle has sold more than 110 systems including to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, said Kimberly Stambler, business development and sales leaders for the company’s mission and defense technologies division.

The Code of Federal Regulations states that citizens are not allowed to jam frequencies, which the DroneDefender does. Ergo, the federal government can only operate it currently, she said. The regulation, which is being enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, means that state and local first responders cannot use it as well.

That’s something Battelle would like to see change, she said.

The company says it has potential customers in at least 75 countries and has sold to some foreign militaries — with proper International Traffic in Arms Regulations permissions — all located in North America, she said.

“We have some iterative changes that would be maybe more like a version 1.5 but we are working on version 2 as well as other offshoots,” she said. There is no public timeline for the release of the second version.

Battelle is trying to eliminate an 8-pound backpack where the system’s battery and some of its electronics are kept, she said.

“We’re trying to integrate that all into just the rifle platform,” she said.

Lockheed is also investing in counter-UAS technologies, using both directed energy weapons and a non-kinetic approach, said company executives.

The company is currently developing a fiber laser weapon that could be used to target a rogue drone, said Iain McKinnie, senior manager of business development for laser systems at Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed has already manufactured a 30-kilowatt laser and is in the process of building a 60-kilowatt system, he said.

“In a scenario where you’re not worried about shooting down drones directly, not worried about where the wreckage might land … or in a military scenario … our laser weapon capability is a good answer,” he said.

The system can shoot a beam 5 centimeters in diameter on target at several kilometers away, he said.

Lockheed has also developed the Icarus system. The system can detect, identify and defeat Group 1 UAVs, said Doug Booth, Lockheed’s director of business development for cyber solutions.

The package consists of three parts. The front-end component is a suite of sensors with radio frequency, acoustic and imagery detectors. Those sensors feed information to a database where radio frequency, acoustic and imagery signatures are stored. That enables the company to quickly detect a UAV and in some cases identify the specific system, he said. The last component is a cyber, non-kinetic payload that can defeat the UAV. The system can drop the unit out of the sky, disable some onboard payloads such as cameras or it can take control of the system.

Icarus would be ideal for drones at a close range, Booth said.

Lockheed envisions that some customers may want to employ both systems to stop drones at various ranges, he said. “We definitely think there is a certain range and a certain capability for Icarus and another range for directed energy.”

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