The quest for Canada’s unmanned airborne ISR
To hear some experts tell it, in the future of networked warfare the unmanned vehicle will be king. No larger than a fly, yet packed with all the sensors of a modern surveillance aircraft, operating autonomously or in collaboration with other sensors, in the air, on the ground or under water, it will revolutionize the way we fight.
Walk the isle of any military trade show today, though, and you’ll see the predecessors of that futuristic scenario. Perched on pedestals, Skylarks, Ravens, Scan Eagles, Predators, Reapers and other birds of prey swoop down at you, while about the convention floor, wheeled and tracked ground vehicles manoeuvre in jerky motions around coffee-toting attendees and surface and sub-surface tubes and discs, set against deep blue backgrounds, proffer underwater adventure.
Whether performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, disposing of improvised explosive devices (IED), guarding coastal approaches or releasing air-to-ground missiles, unmanned vehicles are increasingly viewed as the platform of choice.
On a recent trip to Afghanistan, General Rick Hillier, chief of the defence staff, told reporters that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were among his top three requests of NATO allies. At home, Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the recent Speech from the Throne to commit to investment in aerial surveillance through unmanned vehicles as a way to demonstrate sovereignty over the Arctic.
With issues around mobility still hampering ground vehicles, and challenges of seawater density affecting the power and communication of underwater craft, UAVs offer the best return on short-term investment.
The Canadian Forces has conducted several major exercises to test unmanned aircraft, including in the Arctic where satellite coverage north of 65 degrees is problematic, and operated a surveillance drone over restricted air space during the 2002 G8 Summit in Kananaskis. Most of its immediate field experience, however, comes from the ground-launched Sperwer and Elbit Systems’ Skylark mini, both of which have been used in army operations in Afghanistan. Though the CF ordered 10 more Sperwer from Denmark in 2005, its limitations have been evident.
Afghan operations have proved the need for a persistent, interoperable airborne ISR capability to support everything from tactical to theatre-level decision-making. To that end, the Air Force has two programs under way – JAIC and JUSTAS.
The first, Joint Airborne ISR, is an interim solution to satisfy the CF’s immediate operational requirements. The platform will include a full suite of signals intelligence sensors, an integrated and jointly interoperable weapons system, a range of 600 kilometres and flying endurance of 12 hours – all capable of being controlled and maintained in theatre.
JAIC also carries an aggressive schedule. A letter of interest went out to industry over the summer and a flight demonstration is expected this spring, followed soon after by a contract; delivery of the first UAV is expected by June 2009.
JUSTAS (Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System), on the other hand, is the military’s long-term solution, a medium or high altitude, satellite-based aerial surveillance and sensing platform able to operate beyond-line-of-sight in all climates, including maritime and the Arctic. The vehicle could be operated from anywhere – operators would not have to be deployed into theatre – and would include precision strike capabilities.
“It boils down to a need for timely information,” says LCol Wade Williams, who heads the directorate of Air Requirements 8 (DAR 8). “That’s what we’re hearing from commanders in the field. We also need something to do the dirty work when it is too dangerous to send soldiers,” he told a recent conference hosted by AUVSI-Canada, an international association representing the industry.
Though JAIC and JUSTAS are Air Force projects, Williams said they are being carried out in collaboration with Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command and Canada Command to ensure that they meet the entire military and intelligence communities’ requirements. In that vein, he’s also looking to industry for ideas. “We do not claim to be all-knowing,” he said. “We want innovative solutions. The demand for ISR is going to keep growing.”
Much of that innovation is already under way in government, academia and industry. At Defence Research and Development Canada in Suffield, AB, Doug Hanna leads a team in the autonomous intelligent systems section that in the past five years has grown from 14 to 25 researchers with an R&D budget of $2 million. During the 1990s, the emphasis was on landmine detection; today they are focused on higher levels of capability and autonomy in increasingly more complex environments such as movement indoors with deliberate placement of appendages. “It’s really about control issues of autonomous systems,” he said.
The National Research Council of Canada has invested significant resources, especially in vehicle aerodynamics – it built a wind tunnel to address the problem of icing in flight, and is modeling the dynamics of landing UAVs on the deck of a ship. It has also made strides in composite technologies; for Sperwer, NRC is developing patches to repair punctures. And it has partnered with Carleton University to research insect flight, smart-wing development and foldable aircraft that can be easily portable by soldiers.
A team at the University of Calgary is experimenting with “swarm bots,” multiple microbots able to link up in origami-like fashion to provide a fuller picture than any one sensor could provide. And in the private sector, Vancouver-based MDA is on the verge of its first test flight for the Heron, the first medium-altitude, long endurance UAV to receive a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada.
The model community did much of the pioneer work for UAVs, and while the defence and security communities are eying the possibilities, the next explosion is expected to come in the commercial sector – pipeline monitoring, forestry and crop management, to name just a few.
Despite its many sensory components, the UAV is at heart an aircraft. And while National Defence can regulate flight permits and frequency clearances for use on its premises, unrestricted airspace poses a greater challenge. The pace of change, however, may be forcing regulators to act.
“This is the next big aerospace market,” says Don Matthews of the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems. CCUVS has been a part of a Transport Canada working group to develop recommendations for operator licensing and aircraft safety standards, including certification of maintenance personnel.
Mansur Huq, director general of aviation for Transport Canada, admits that the current practice of applying for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) has been “somewhat laborious” but says it has been an adequate authorization process. The department wants a performance-based regulation system that works for government and industry, he told DefSec Atlantic in Halifax in September, but it must first “get the regulations right as [they] are hard to change once in place. We hope to have a thriving UAV sector operating relatively independently.”
Although there is a great deal of hype surrounding UAVs, the industry is still very much in its infancy. And Alan Parslow sees opportunity.
The CEO of Nova Scotia-based Deep Vision believes that “there (could be) a niche opening for us in the autonomous [sector].”
Canada stands well behind smaller industry players such as China and Australia, to say nothing of major actors such as the US and Europe, but Atlantic Canada has a few aces to play – location, airspace and landscape, facilities and know-how.
Just four to five hours from Europe and close to the US border, Atlantic Canada is ideally suited to manufacture and test the world’s UAVs. The region can offer access to unencumbered airspace and diverse terrain, “conditions that are hard to come by in Europe,” he notes, as well as variable temperatures and weather conditions. Area bases, most notably 5 Wing Goose Bay, are world-class, and the provinces are well positioned to provide private and public R&D technology and research. A Canadian industry working with Europeans would also not be encumbered to the same degree as US operators by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
“Autonomous systems will prevail in our lifetime,” Parslow said. ”[But] now is the time. We need a sovereign UAV capability that we can tailor to our needs.”