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The move to unmanned aerial systems

As a former C-130 Hercules pilot with well over 8,000 hours of experience, Lt.-Col. Gord Smith is the first to confess “there’s a certain amount of heresy” to defining the Canadian Forces’ (CF) requirements for unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Smith heads the Air Force’s directorate of Air Requirements 8, a newly created section tasked with assessing the capabilities of medium- and high-altitude unmanned aerial reconnaissance and surveillance. Exercises by the Canadian Forces Experimentation Centre (CFEC) over the past four years have successfully demonstrated the potential integration of UAS, also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

“UAVs are the technology drug of choice right now,” he says, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. At the same time, he cautions, they should not necessarily be viewed as a replacement for current systems. Maj. Murray Regush of the CFEC, which has conducted most of the testing, is even more blunt.

“UAVs are just another sensor, another capability, and may not be the be-all and end-all,” he insists.

Military panacea or not, UAVs represent a booming market. A recent report by consultants Frost and Sullivan suggests new capabilities have made the vehicles “almost indispensable to military operators.” UAVs have long been a staple in the Israeli air force, considered by many as leaders in the field.

In recent years, however, markets such as Europe and Asia have expanded rapidly, and the U.S. continues to spearhead new R&D efforts. Deployment of UAVs in Afghanistan and Iraq — especially those with combat capabilities — demonstrate how integral they have become to the U.S. arsenal.

Canadian policy makers, for their part, appear to have the same high expectations for UAVs, which were mentioned no fewer than six times in the country’s International Policy Statement released this spring.

“The ability to sense and then distribute relevant and timely information to all command levels involved in a particular operation is invaluable,” says Ian Glenn, president of Unmanned Vehicle Systems (UVS) International Canada, an organization representing the UVS community. “An endurance UAS that is sized to carry the right sensors and communications payloads can provide a critical capability.”

He suggested Canadian industry could play a key role in the CF’s future plans, given the range of platforms offered by companies such as CDL Systems, MMIST, Advanced Subsonics and Meggitt Defence Systems Canada. Even if the move is to a single ground station controlling multiple UAS — the ultimate goal of the U.S. Army ‘One System’ — Calgary’s CDL has already successfully achieved just that.

“This was really a Canadian success story,” says Glenn, describing how an AAI Shadow 200 tactical control station recently flew a Predator ‘Warrior’ UAV. “One of the objectives of the UVS Canada community is to ensure that the government requirement and procurement process understands and considers the very strong capability in our own country as they go forward to procure the right capability for our soldiers.”

Cautious Confidence Despite such optimism, there are still issues that must be resolved before UAVs can be effectively integrated into Canadian domestic operations. The most recent exercise last fall, ALIX (Atlantic Littoral Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Experiment), aptly demonstrated much of what a UAV can do. But the event also showed limitations, including operating in bad weather, a staple of all Canadian regions; poor satellite coverage north of 65 degrees; lack of sense-and-avoid sensors when operating in commercial airspace; and de-icing difficulties.

“There are weaknesses,” Smith admits. “The technology has a long way to go. Sense-and-avoid technologies make the UAV a little more autonomous and a little smarter in terms of detecting threats and de-conflicting with other aircraft in the event of an air traffic control or machine error. You can appreciate that there are a lot of nervous Nellies out there when it comes to flying these things in commercial airspace.

Likewise, he regards navigation in the far north to be an absolute necessity.  “We have Alert at 82 degrees north, we have the arctic archipelago of islands to which we lay sovereign claim, and we have geo-strategic concerns over the Northwest Passage becoming an international strait,” he says. “Satellite coverage going north is something we’re going to have to solve. I don’t know if it’s going to be land based or a different type of satellite construct – ultimately we’re going to have to deal with it. That’s a big challenge that we’ve put out to industry and the R&D community.”

In spite of such shortcomings, Smith expects to have the makings of what he calls a family of UAVs by 2010.

The air force, which by agreement has assumed the lead on this project, is focused on three of the five classes of UAV: HALE or High Altitude, Long Endurance vehicles such as the U.S. Global Hawk; MALE or Medium Altitude, Long Endurance such as the Predator; and tactical UAVs such as the Sperwer, used by the army in Operation Athena in Afghanistan in 2003-2004.

“We’re working with the air force to develop this concept,” says Maj. Chris Lemay of army public affairs. “The information provided in theatre was above and beyond what we expected. It was flying in the worst possible conditions and brought us critical information without putting lives in jeopardy.”  Meanwhile, mini-systems such as the Advanced Ceramics Silver Fox — a collaborative buy for the CFEC, army and air force — and other hand-launched vehicles are still being assessed. So too are micro systems, which could resemble mechanical insects controlled by a soldier in an urban environment.   Project JUSTAS  Smith heads Project JUSTAS (Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System), an assessment of primarily MALE and HALE capabilities for Canada Com, the CF’s newly created central command.

“Whether we get to the point of a HALE machine is really going to be a resources-based decision,” he says. “It gets prohibitive and starts to defeat the argument that UAVs are cheaper and more expendable. Ownership is not as inexpensive as people make it out to be — where you may diminish the requirements for people to operate the air vehicle, you start to pick up and intensify the requirement for a more robust information management backend to manage the data that comes off the device.”

Eventually, he speculates, much of the traditional fleet function will go away and surveillance may be exclusively unmanned. For now, Project JUSTAS also evaluates combat capabilities, something Smith says the CF will likely acquire in time.

“We’re not in a position to even consider that now,” he says. “We’re going to evolve our inventory to eventually get there. We’re not going to put hellfire missiles on our first UAV, notwithstanding the fact that some people may want to see that. We’ve got to crawl a little before we walk, and then walk before we run.”

The ultimate goal is a ‘family’ of aircraft able to respond to unfolding situations. He envisions a scenario in which a high-flyer circling over an operations area at 25,000-30,000 feet could cue another UAV at a lower altitude if surveillance spotted something, which in turn could trigger action by a foot soldier in the vicinity with a mini-UAV.

“We want to be able to create a certain amount of synergy,” he says. “It’s very easy to get caught up with the technology but the point of the exercise is to produce an output. And the output we’re looking for is surveillance and reconnaissance information in near real time. In fact, real time is the optimal solution.”   The Experiments  The CFEC undertook its first experiment in April 2002 with Exercise ROBUST RAM, a test of three leased UAVs — the hand-held Pointer, the vertical takeoff Guardian, and the medium altitude I-GNAT. They were operated by their respective contractors to assess the equipment concept and the backend architecture, exchanging digital information in a command and control structure. “As a learning process, it went well,” Regush says.

A couple of months later, this work was followed by aerial surveillance over restricted air space during the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alta.

The following year, CFEC used an Israeli Aircraft Industries Eagle 1 to conduct PLIX, a line-of-sight, multi-sensor operation off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The maritime surveillance support operation consisted of four contractor-controlled flights using imagery and radar. The exercise even produced an unexpected bonus, when the UAV videotaped and identified a freighter trailing an oil slick.

It also marked the first time a UAV was registered as a CF military aircraft. But the CFEC was forced to use commercial bandwidth, which restricted the timeliness of data, especially imagery.

“As an equipment concept, we wanted to find out what a UAV brings to the picture,” says Regush. “How much does it improve things?” With ALIX, CFEC set out to test an integrated ISR architecture on a shared network, and beyond-the-line-of-sight operations. The Altair, a variant of the Predator B from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, was used to provide surveillance and reconnaissance information to three separate operations conducted off the east coast.

The first, part of Exercise Narwhal, simulated a satellite crash near Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, to determine the kind of UAV support a Joint Forces Commander might require for a salvage operation. The second involved surveillance, reconnaissance, defensive target acquisition and battle damage assessment as part of a United Nations peace support operation over Gagetown, N.B.

The final exercise, broken into two components, included a fisheries patrol and a simulated terrorist attack on a St. John’s, Nfld. conference. Launch and recovery were conducted from 5 Wing Goose Bay, but once airborne control of the UAV was switched to an operations centre in Ottawa. The Altair, which was flown by General Atomics but commanded by the CF, flew a total 52.8 hours and provided some valuable lessons.

Poor visibility and weather delays were a factor throughout the exercises. Support to Narwhal was limited due to inclement weather, and an attempt to support a navy boarding party was missed due to a weather delay.

“As an instrument rated pilot, I fully understand the nuances of operating in this country,” says Smith, who considers ALIX his “baptism by fire” of how UAVs likely will be used in Canada. “Notwithstanding the winter conditions, this is an extraordinary limitation on the machines right now. They are not mature enough to be able to deal with a cloud deck down to 200 feet above the ground and less than half a mile of horizontal visibility. They do not have an auto land or an auto fly capability. We’re challenging industry to try and confront that. It doesn’t speak well when you can only fly when it’s a nice sunny day.”

Regush echoes this call for all-weather sensors. “And if we want all-weather capability,” he adds, “the aircraft has to have de-icing ability.”

He also acknowledges concerns regarding the lack of payload control for a ground commander but argues that the automatic vessel identification system worked extremely well. The most significant problem, however, proved to be the lack of adequate satellite coverage north of 60 degrees.

“Once you get that far north, satellite coverage is tough,” he admits.  In addition to the capabilities of the UAV, ALIX also examined the value of an open network, allowing participants from the various services, as well as other agencies, to monitor and contribute to the operation. In theory, departments such as Fisheries and Oceans, the RCMP and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada could request and act on UAV data.

“One of the questions was, if we network everyone, does it improve situational awareness,” Regush says. “The idea was to link strategic, tactical and operation guys together as part of the architecture. We’re still assessing the effectiveness.”

As they complete their assessments, both Smith and the CFEC are forwarding their recommendations to the Joint Program Office headed by Lt.-Col. Kevin Doyle. Both expect UAVs to become more ubiquitous as the CF moves forward.

“Project JUSTAS is going to produce a national surveillance capability,” concludes Smith. “We’re going to put a UAV in our deployed operations so that we can have that high flyer overview of what’s going on with activities on the ground. The whole idea here is to support ground and naval forces. UAVs are going to put a different shape on the way internal security is managed in this country.”

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