Budget pressure drives Air Force UAS overhaul

Interoperability will enable fewer personnel, fewer unmanned aircraft to do more, ISR PEO says.

The Air Force is continuing to develop new sensor and control systems for its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) despite a shrinking budget and the need to support its manned aircraft. The technologies under development will provide the service’s UAS with enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, an Air Force official said.

Unmanned aircraft provide the military with an unprecedented capability for using ISR systems, Col. Eric Fick, program executive officer for Air Force ISR and special operations forces, said at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems Program Review 2012 conference in Washington on Feb. 8. However, using these platforms creates huge demands on the service in today’s constrained financial environment, he added.

The Air Force’s ISR and special operations mission extends beyond robot platforms to include manned systems, covering some 45 programs, Fick said.

Precision strike, ISR, and special operations capabilities traditionally develop in separate tracks, but these applications are now merging; it once took the Air Force weeks and days to locate and fix a target, but it now takes minutes, he said.

In the current tight fiscal environment, the Air Force’s priorities for UAS-based ISR are preparing for the next war and focusing on greater interoperability, which allows for fewer people and fewer drones to do more, he said. Major research and development thrusts include advanced sensors, flexible payloads, the UAS Command and Control Initiative (UCI), and high-capacity airborne communications.

For advanced sensors, the service is working on methods to support cross-cueing and control between UAS sensors and different users. A related area of research is also developing automated tools for sifting and identifying data to reduce operator workloads, Fick said.

The major thrust of the UCI is to promote system interoperability by developing a common ground station capable of controlling a variety of robot aircraft, eliminating development stovepipes and merging UAS fleets. The effort is also directing program developers to adopt common sensor platforms by eliminating redundant systems, Fick said. For mission software, he said the Air Force will probably develop an apps store-like function offering vetted and approved applications.

The Air Force is also part of a broader Defense Department program to develop sense-and-avoid technologies that will allow UAS operations in civilian airspace by providing drones with advanced sensors to detect other aircraft and the algorithms to avoid them if necessary. UAS flights in U.S. civilian airspace now require Federal Aviation Administration waivers and other documentation, Fick said. The goal is to develop an autonomous flight capability that will permit the service to file a flight plan just as it would do for a manned flight, he added.