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Small UAVs Step up to Advanced Comms Capabilities

By employing integrated comms and computing subsystems, Small UAVs are expanding their ability to transmit data and extend control range.


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  • SFF Boards
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The brisk investment in UAV development and procurement continues across all branches of the DoD. And that situation isn't expected to change under the current Administration. In volume, the Small UAV segment of this market naturally exceeds that of medium and large UAVs. This class of UAVs faces the most difficult challenges with reducing size, weight and power (SWaP) while at the same time cramming more functionality and autonomy into Small UAV payload systems.

While the term "small" UAV is relative, the Class 2 and Class 3 UAVs-as defined by the DoD's latest Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap-are distinct in terms of their electronics needs compared to larger UAV systems. Class 2 and Class 3 encompass UAVs spanning from 21 pounds to 1,320 pounds in take-off weight. And UAVs under 21 pounds (Class 1) are controlled by relatively straightforward custom electronic circuitry.

While larger classes of UAVs rely on backplanes crammed with VME and CompactPCI boards, small UAVs and their payloads have been slower to embrace standard form factor boards. Form factors like PC/104, COM Express and others are often used in the development phase, but few get deployed in the end product. That's beginning to change as small UAV system developers seek to outfit UAVs with more mission autonomy and more powerful sensors. Meanwhile, complete compact box-level subsystems-often designed for a special payload function-are also having an impact in this market space as box-level systems with small size/weight foot prints emerge.

Workhorse Tactical UAVs

Exemplifying the success of small tactical UAVs, the Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems (TUAS) last month achieved its 100,000 mission milestone. With 113 systems ordered and 87 delivered, Shadow systems (Figure 1) are deployed across the Army and Marine Corps with most of its flight hours in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Figure 1
An Army unmanned aerial system maintainer, prepares a Shadow UAV for launch. Shadow UAVs have achieved its 100,000 mission milestone, with most of their flight hours in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Technology system upgrades have been a critical part of the Shadow's success. While initially created as a day/night reconnaissance platform, Shadow's manufacturer AAI is adding the capability to acquire and designate a target to its Shadow TUAS. In addition, deployed Shadow aircraft are being equipped with a Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, or SINCGARS, communications relay. Other upgrades include a new lithium battery designed to provide power in the event of generator failure. AAI also is integrating a new electronic fuel injection engine and a new fuel delivery system, which together are expected to bolster system reliability.

Adding Digital Data Link Support

This past summer, AAI also got a $32 million contact from the U.S. Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office to enhance the Shadow TUAS with the tactical common data link (TCDL). The TCDL is a Ku-band digital data link that delivers wide-bandwidth communications using common data link, or CDL, waveform standards. It is being integrated using a NATO standardization agreement (STANAG) 4586-compliant architecture that enables interoperability with the latest NATO and U.S. Army standards.

The enhanced system will be designed to provide Shadow TUAS users a common interface with other military systems that incorporate TCDL and these interoperability standards, including the Extended-Range, Multi-Purpose Sky Warrior UAV, the Hunter UAV, and the Apache helicopter. TCDL can accommodate state-of-the-art digital sensor technology. In addition, its encryption capabilities provide enhanced data security.

In other comms-related small UAV activity, Boeing-subsidiary Insitu, along with Harris, successfully completed a demo in October of a Single-Channel Ground and Airborne UHF/VHF Radio Relay System on the Insitu Integrator UAV (Figure 2) during a Communications Relay Payload (CRP) test flight in Eastern Oregon. Harris is one of Insitu's team members for the small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS)/Tier II competition. The Integrator UAV, outfitted with a relay based upon the field-proven Harris Falcon III (AN/PRC-152) radios, enables mobile ground units to relay voice and data with an extensive end-to-end reach.

Figure 2
The Integrator UAV’s payload enables the capture of high-resolution imagery both day and night, camera turret functionality, and long-lasting flight endurance. Its beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) capability enables control of Integrator from anywhere in the world via satellite communications.

Communications relay supported by an airborne asset is essential in situations where line of sight obstructions exist. The demonstration represents a culmination of development efforts spanning several years to provide the warfighter with ground communication capabilities. The UHF/VHF relay provides a variety of frequencies and waveforms, including Single-Channel Ground-Air Radio System (SINCGARS), and extends the range between users for voice and data communications, including chat text, instant messaging and imagery. Integrator's small operational footprint is the same as its Insitu UAS counterpart ScanEagle, using the SkyHook retrieval system and a common launcher that enable true runway-independence.

Another STUAS/Tier II Contender

Meanwhile, AAI in July unveiled its contender for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps' joint Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS)/Tier II program: the Aerosonde Mark 4.7. Developed as a part of AAI's Aerosonde fleet of SUAS, including the Mark 4.4 and Mark 5.0, the Mark 4.7 delivers greater than 10-hour endurance, a low acoustic signature and a small footprint, all of which make it ideal for confined-area land or maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well as for communications relay. Its modular payload installation allows the rapid addition of new payloads and capabilities as they become available, enabling technology refresh with little to no aircraft or system modifications. The system also uses AAI's Expeditionary Ground Control Station (EGCS). The EGCS is based on the company's proven One System command and control architecture that provides interoperability between the Aerosonde Mark 4.7 and other One System platforms, including the Shadow UAV. Users receive digital and analog data from the aircraft's electro-optic and infrared payloads on compact, ruggedized laptops.

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Boeing Integrated Defense Systems
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(314) 232-0232.