An Eagle over Afghanistan – Unmanned aircraft opens new business model
In May, a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle entered the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, marking the thousands of hours the aircraft has flown in support of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers in Afghanistan, transmitting real time imagery to commanders on the ground. Insitu, now a Boeing subsidiary, built the ScanEagle, but Ottawa-based ING Engineering delivered its capabilities in theatre. Ian Glenn, ING’s CEO and founder, describes his company as “novel leading edge technologies wrapped in a service delivery team.” He recently spoke with Vanguard.
What did ING actually deliver to the ISAF customer in Kandahar?
We took care of the critical flight pieces. We put the aircraft in the sky, handed off at an appropriate point, and 15 hours later they would hand it back to us, we would recover and do the maintenance. Our Kandahar operations were basically six people and one from Insitu, and we ran 24/7 operations. By the end, we were launching three aircraft in the morning, bringing them back 15 hours later, and then sending two more up in the evening with an outstanding thermal capability – it wasn’t even available at the beginning of the contract. The customer – the soldier of Task Force Kandahar – was exceptionally well served. We had over 99 percent mission availability; that meant if someone wanted ScanEagle coverage, they got it, no matter the weather. When everything else couldn’t fly, we had an asset that could fly and worked at a price point that you could afford.
The military is clearly happy with the product. Were there other benefits to the mixed military-civilian package?
One of the issues the air force reported over its Sperwer deployment was that it was always “Roto Zero,” so they would learn and learn, go home, and new guys would come in and start from the beginning. My first hire for Kandahar was a retired Master Warrant Officer with 28 years of AWACS experience; as an airspace controller, he really knew how things should work. He was in three months, out three months, and as everyone did these rotations, we cross-pollinated within our own team. When the next Roto came in, the institutional knowledge was there. Our operation was a good example of how you can break up a complex problem from a people, technology and process point of view. The key to success with leading edge and evolving technologies is that you have the right people. Other programs that went before us used more dogmatic approaches.
A C-130 recently collided with an RQ-7 UAV in Afghanistan. Is this a setback for the unmanned concept?
We are where we are supposed to be. In a controlled airspace, it’s simple. We have transponders and that’s the end of the story. In Kandahar, we were in and out of there 10 times a day – that is busier than Heathrow – and never a problem. The manned aviation community says things like, “you couldn’t do that in Toronto.” Yes, we could. We could fly in and out of Toronto as easily as anybody else. It’s controlled airspace and if you apply the right rigours and process you can be as safe as manned aviation. The real challenge is outside of controlled air, in Class G airspace, outside of the 25 or so islands of controlled airspace across the country. The assumption is that you will see the other aircraft. There are some technological and process ways to de-conflict and they keep getting better.
You describe unmanned technologies as transformational. Example?
Tube launching comes to mind. Forget about taking minutes or even seconds to launch a surveillance system. Tube launching means one button to arm, one button to launch. Talk about transformative. My first job after college was armoured reconnaissance troop leader. Imagine rolling up to take a look at something. Just touch the button, launch a UAV and bring up the picture on the vehicle’s electronics.
These things are real. You name it and we can probably go do it today. If the customer has the imagination to ask for an unmanned system, we can probably knock something together pretty quickly. As an example, what is the best way to take out an opponent’s radar system without declaring war? Well, bombing it is probably out, and so is jamming or sabotage. But a one or two-stage UAV system could drop a little radio transmitter right inside that radar horn and blot out every signal it receives. We might not be able to do that in real life right now, but we could run a demonstration literally within weeks.
You are a new kind of defence contractor, it seems, providing a skilled service interface between customer and manufacturer. Can you define that space?
Large defence organizations, despite the business of supplying war fighters, tend to be quite risk-averse. If you don’t have to assume risk, don’t. But that is the antithesis of small business, which is all about risk and managing risk on a daily basis. I am in the business of expanding into areas where large corporations might desire to be, but it requires assumption of more risk than they can do on a timely basis. Small business is often more agile, and I’m working with a team to find ways to use new technologies to do work that is safer, cheaper and greener. With our new platform, Serenity, we are using fuel at one-thousandth the rate of the smallest helicopter you can put out there with a sensor, supporting it in remote regions to do exactly the same job.
What does the future look like for ING?
Well, the immediate future on the defence side is clearly ScanEagle. A senior commander’s words to me about the ScanEagle were, “make sure you sustain it, and make sure you have a Roto Zero capability.” So we are working hard to ensure that we have that. That gives the country a great capability no matter where on the spectrum of international engagement we are. DFAIT today has a toolset that they didn’t have before and it allows them to react to tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and famine anywhere that Canada wants to project influence. They can start with a simple robot system on the ground providing situational awareness, communications, which immediately helps you be more effective in everything else you do. The growing understanding in government is that you can employ this to further your goals and you can do it right at the outset. Everybody on scene and back home can have a common operating picture right away. That’s what we did in Afghanistan. With an aircraft out 80 kilometres from the base, we brought information back in real time and put in on big displays in the various levels of headquarters – at Kandahar Airfield but also on the displays of the lead vehicles of convoys. The tactical commander on the ground was getting the same view. If troops were in contact, we would be re-tasked to go look. The ability to deliver that with a trained team, available in a very few hours, is deemed valuable.
What we do also fits into an effective strategy for search and rescue and sovereignty operations in the Arctic. You can easily cover the entire Northwest Passage from communities equipped with these technologies. I have a nefarious plan to train aboriginal young people on short-range machines. Every community could base a UAV capability and blanket the area with coverage. It’s simple, it creates jobs, it connects communities and it solves part of the SAR issue. Normally SAR is three thousand kilometres away.
Is it fair to say ING’s success is a controlled coincidence, with your military background, ING’s decade of UAV experience, the Afghan requirement and technology all coming together at the same time?
It’s a fair characterization but it doesn’t take into account the realities. Here is how I would characterize everything that happens in this industry. There are often folks at the working level who get it. They are passionate about it, and they really understand how it’s going to make their jobs better. To be successful it requires a visionary at the top. The real enablers were the Prime Minister and then the Manley Report, which called for not just helicopters and troops, but also “these unmanned air vehicles.” That was critical. Also, the visionary leadership of folks like Gen Rick Hillier and Gen Walt Natynczyk. Those officers allowed it to happen: they didn’t necessarily know how it would work out but they understood it would help. Every time you see a success in this industry, it’s because a visionary at the top is able to articulate that well to the middle group of managers who have little incentive to actually go down this route. Now it is a demonstrated capability.
Disney coined the term “imagineering.” That’s what we do. If I can imagine it, I can engineer it and deliver it. You need the right team wrapped around the technology to shield the customer from the complexity – not that they can’t or won’t understand it, but it’s not their job. My team understands technology, we understand airspace, we understand operational procedures. We’re bringing innovative technologies to new opportunities all the time.
An interview with ING Engineerings Ian Glenn