The use of drones and unmanned systems in the defence industry is maturing from a reliance on human input and remote control, to increasingly autonomous operations. As these Advanced Air Vehicles (AAVs) continue to develop in complexity and operational capability, it will bring support and sustainment to the fore. Matt Medley, Industry Director, A&D Manufacturing, IFS, highlights the importance of the role of supporting software to link data across the different stakeholders of OEMs, defence forces and defence contractors, and the functionalities required to maximise the potential of AAVs.
Unlike the commercial aviation sector, where Advanced Air Vehicles (AAVs) are viewed as nascent innovation and technology, and where regulatory hurdles are still to be negotiated, the defence sector has been using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for some time, and they’re growing in both complexity and operational abilities.
Autonomy in the skies – reducing risk on the ground
We’re already seeing drones and unmanned aerial vehicles being used on the frontline of military operations, varying in size and scale, but each playing a vital operational role—from tiny handheld surveillance drones to large-scale remotely controlled UAVs with large payload capacity. Looking forward, we can clearly see the next key phase in UAV development will be autonomously operated air vehicles such as the Boeing Loyal Wingman project aircraft capable of both flying alongside manned aircraft for support and performing autonomous missions independently using artificial intelligence.
MUM-T (Manned-unmanned teaming) is a key development that we will hear more about in next-gen military UAVs. MUM-T represents autonomous aircraft collaborating with a crewed plane, in which each aircraft in the formation performs its own unique mission as defined by the US Army Aviation Center as: “The cooperative employment of unmanned assets with traditional manned platforms, providing the unique capabilities of each system to be leveraged for the same mission. The primary benefit of this employment concept is to transmit live intelligence captured from the unmanned system to the manned asset, providing the manned operator with improved situational awareness without placing them at risk.”
Improved operational agility while keeping personnel out of danger
As well as removing human soldiers from harm, autonomous unmanned systems also bring about other important operational advantages. For instance, being unencumbered by life support systems such as breathing apparatus and ejection seats, means ‘uncrewed’ aircraft can carry larger payloads with sensors for improved intelligence and reconnaissance, or carry more fuel which in turn allows for longer trips. As defence forces move to a more distributed operational model to counter wide-reaching threats, there are budget and logistics benefits to be gained too.
Expendable drones such as the European-produced Black Hornet micro drones will have a much lower price point than the more advanced systems. These are very small, 16cm in length and a mass of only 32g, and are designed to fly within feet of enemy soldiers and enter buildings to spy on positions without being detected—and come with a price tag of around $10,000 USD per unit.
Unmanned systems, whatever their size and role, not only make delivery quickly and easily, but also open up many new deployment options. Fully autonomous equipment has the ability to return to base for reuse after each mission, and the locations of these bases can be more dispersed to address a changing threat environment. This would include setting up rugged, dispersed forward-operating bases, in some cases using rough runways that would be too unsafe for manned landing.
Making mission impossible possible – with a minimised logistics footprint
These widened deployment options are completely in line with the US Air Force Agile Combat Employment initiative that ultimately aims to “reduce the number of Airmen in harm’s way in austere environments.” Consider the maintenance sustainment associated with the MQ-9 Reaper – labelled “The Most Dangerous Military Drone on Earth” – an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations.
A fully operational MQ-9 Reaper system comprises a sensor/weapon-equipped aircraft, ground control station, Predator Primary Satellite Link, and spare equipment along with operations and maintenance crews for deployed 24-hour missions. The basic crew of two personnel consists of a rated pilot to control the aircraft and command the mission, and an enlisted aircrew member to operate sensors and guide weapons. Furthermore, the remotely piloted aircraft can be disassembled and loaded into a single container for deployment worldwide.
Logistics and sustainment activities come to the fore
Unmanned systems will only continue in their maturity and become a key component of a modern fighting force. The inevitable result is that sustainment, support, and maintenance become key considerations to keep these assets available throughout their lifecycle—wherever they’re deployed.
Maintenance support must ensure services are provided for optimal performance of the unmanned platforms, payloads, and related components throughout the asset’s lifecycle. A quick look through recent unmanned systems RFPs and SOWs from various military forces shows the complexity of UAV logistics and sustainment activities.
The requirements are many and wide sweeping. Actions may include, but are not limited to:
- Ongoing support issues: lifecycle sustainment, supply support, depot-level support.
- Repair and maintenance issues: repair and refurbishment, alteration installation, logistics and sustainment analyses, maintenance planning, management, and services, packaging, handling, storage, and transportation.
- Training and obsolescence management: maintenance training and support, obsolescence management, Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS) support, inventory and sparing management and much, much more!
A common digital thread is required to link UAV through-life support
Whether these UAVs are supported and maintained by the OEMs, third-party defence contractors, or defence forces themselves, a next-generation military asset requires next-generation software to manage maintenance throughout its lifecycle. There needs to be an end-to-end digital thread to link all data sources and stakeholders in the military UAV ecosystem. This means unmanned system design, manufacturing, supply chain, and aftermarket services need a digital backbone capable to support sustainment now and into the future.
From that long list of RFP and SOW requirements around UAV maintenance and support, it’s clear that breadth of functionality will be a key component—and this breadth needs to be reflected in supporting software as well. Data collection, analysis, and execution will be vital to ensure the readiness of UAVs, and a lot of this can be achieved with the right underlying software support to ensure the right maintenance tasks are assigned at the right time for every UAV—for planned instances, but also unplanned scenarios using advanced data analytics and forecasting.
Cybersecurity ramps up
With remote and autonomous assets also comes the increased vulnerability to cyber-attacks—so a key requirement throughout UAV RFPs and SOWs is the need for underlying software to adhere to the highest levels of cyber protection. This means containing the ability to identify, report, and resolve security violations and ensure that all information systems are functional and secure, and ensure information assurance is defined and validated.
To this end, supporting maintenance software should be a strategic enabler for information assurance and cybersecurity. It should be designed from the ground up with security in mind, and address risks and threats throughout all phases of the software development lifecycle.
New asset – same readiness
The inevitable growth of AAVs and UAVs in defence means the sustainment of these military assets is firmly under the spotlight, especially given their increasing complexity and operational importance. Linking all stages of the AAV and UAV lifecycle and defence OEMs, forces, and contractors with a common data thread is a core requirement to maximise their availability.
Every military asset must be at the ready for any and every event, whenever and wherever they are needed—AAVs and UAVs are no exception.