Self-Regulated World Sought For UAVs

There is grow­ing inter­est in a U.S. avi­a­tion force—perhaps based pri­mar­i­ly on exist­ing air­craft in the effort to save shrink­ing defense dollars—that could car­ry out pre­ci­sion sur­veil­lance and strike mis­sions thou­sands of miles away.

This arti­cle is pub­lished with kind per­mis­sion of “Avi­a­tion Week & Space Tech­nol­o­gy


That capa­bil­i­ty would be par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in the Pacif­ic Rim where U.S. bases are sit­ed far from sev­er­al hot spots. Chief among those are the min­er­al rich­es of the dis­put­ed South and East Chi­na seas, the pirate-rid­den Malac­ca Strait, the human- and drug-smug­gling routes into sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed north­ern Aus­tralia, ille­gal fish­ing in almost every country’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters and the trans­fer of pro­hib­it­ed nuclear and mis­sile tech­nolo­gies from North Korea.

Con­nect­ing the air­borne platforms—and the extreme­ly impor­tant out­put of their sensors—would be a large­ly autonomous net­work based on coop­er­at­ing super com­put­ers and sophis­ti­cat­ed data links. The net­work would han­dle intel­li­gence, sift­ing it for tar­gets and mon­i­tor­ing all the allied air­craft in-the­ater for their loca­tion, fuel, sen­sors and weapons. Once a tar­get of inter­est is locat­ed, super com­put­ers at the heart of the net­work would ana­lyze the activ­i­ty and decide whether addi­tion­al sur­veil­lance is need­ed. The tar­get also would be scanned for elec­tron­ic activ­i­ty. If a strike is deemed nec­es­sary, avail­able weapons—explosive, elec­tron­ic or cyber—would be deployed.

The Het­ero­ge­neous Air­borne Recon­nais­sance Team (HART) sys­tem is being designed to glue all these ele­ments togeth­er.

HART as now used is an infor­ma­tion col­lec­tor and tasker,” says Scott Win­ship, a vet­er­an Northrop Grum­man team leader for pro­to­type sys­tems. “It puts [infor­ma­tion] into a big hold­ing tank [using cloud com­put­ing]. It’s most­ly based on real-time video, elec­tro-opti­cal (EO) and infrared (IR) images, and the process for putting togeth­er a sig­nals intel­li­gence [sig­int] pack­age. We task and inte­grate sen­sors and then turn any of that col­lect­ed data into usable infor­ma­tion and new col­lec­tion tasks.”

Oth­er spe­cial­ists hint at the technology’s poten­tial. An inte­grat­ed next-gen­er­a­tion sig­int design, for exam­ple, might be able to “see” a push-to-talk radio, con­firm its iden­ti­fy and tag it. An autonomous unmanned aer­i­al sys­tem (UAS) could then fol­low, via video, the cell phone and the car it is in. When the phone rings, the col­lec­tor would be able to cap­ture and under­stand the con­ver­sion.

In an asso­ci­at­ed effort, the U.S. Air Force has estab­lished an RQ‑4 Glob­al Hawk UAS recon­nais­sance cen­ter on Guam. More­over, Glob­al Hawk is becom­ing part of a larg­er intel­li­gence net­work­ing con­struct that includes the Nation­al Recon­nais­sance Office (NRO) and the Nation­al Geo-spa­tial Intel­li­gence Agency (NGA). The lat­ter orga­ni­za­tion is focused on under­stand­ing what is on Earth, why it is there, its mean­ing and the con­text of its activ­i­ty. By adding real-time UAS sur­veil­lance, ana­lysts can start antic­i­pat­ing events.

“[NGA’s role] real­ly is activ­i­ty-based intel­li­gence and what might hap­pen next,” says its direc­tor, Leti­tia Long. “So we’re mov­ing into more of an antic­i­pa­to­ry mode. We bring as many pieces of infor­ma­tion as we can by using [mul­ti-intel­li­gence] fusion and non-tra­di­tion­al sources.

“It takes what we know about the Earth’s phys­i­cal fea­tures, both nat­ur­al and man-made, and adds to it imagery,” Long says. “We get imagery from any­place we can. That includes com­mer­cial radar imagery [and via] nation­al tech­ni­cal means such as satel­lites that NRO builds for us. [Also in use are] both for­eign and domes­tic com­mer­cial images, air­borne manned and unmanned, hand-held [dig­i­tal cam­eras] and increas­ing­ly, non-tra­di­tion­al sources [such as social media]. We’re con­cen­trat­ing on strength­en­ing analy­sis through bring­ing in those dif­fer­ent sources of infor­ma­tion and look­ing for dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy as new sen­sors and tech­nolo­gies are intro­duced.”

A vet­er­an Northrop Grum­man engi­neer who has spent 25 years build­ing pro­to­type sys­tems may have a small-scale ver­sion of a large-scale answer to the net­work­ing prob­lem. With fur­ther devel­op­ment, he sees it expand­ing to include all types of air­craft, includ­ing some non-tra­di­tion­al com­bat plat­forms, and encom­pass­ing an entire the­ater such as the Pacif­ic Ocean and Asia.

Win­ship, who has slipped in and out of Northrop Grumman’s black world in recent years, is now immersed in HART in con­junc­tion with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and oth­er aero­space com­pa­nies such as BAE Sys­tems and Lock­heed Mar­tin.

HART has three pro­ject­ed lay­ers so far. The top one is to pro­vide the strate­gic com­mand func­tion. The bot­tom enables tac­ti­cal sen­sor col­lec­tion. The mid­dle layer—for deci­sion-mak­ing, task­ing and data fusion—appears to be the most com­pli­cat­ed and is shared by many com­pa­nies that each devel­op diverse, spe­cial­ized algo­rithms.

“In the mid­dle is the fusion that we’re try­ing to get togeth­er on with Darpa in a pro­gram called ‘Insight,’” Win­ship says. “It ties togeth­er all the infor­ma­tion and then tasks it. Our part of the mid­dle lay­er is to enable HART to be the engine that goes out and col­lects what is com­mand­ed. In an expand­ed ver­sion, “[Insight] fig­ures out what needs to be col­lect­ed and tells HART to go do it. HART comes back with the infor­ma­tion, asks who needs it and [what else] is need­ed,” he says.

NGA’s Long described her agency’s work as devel­op­ment of algo­rithm-manip­u­lat­ed, “activ­i­ty-based intel­li­gence” that is parsed in a way to deter­mine what might hap­pen next. This antic­i­pa­to­ry capa­bil­i­ty is asso­ci­at­ed with the fusion of lots of data from sen­sors with diverse phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy.

HART can be all of that, plus task­ing assets to get the [addi­tion­al] data to put the puz­zle togeth­er,” Win­ship says. “Cer­tain kinds of intelligence—sigint, elint, EO/IR and images—can gen­er­ate a pat­tern. We’re knit­ting all those things togeth­er in order to pro­vide infor­ma­tion from a lot of dis­parate data.”

Data are sent from a portable com­put­er that directs small UAS, for exam­ple, to the oper­a­tions cen­ter and else­where. Along each step of the way, addi­tion­al com­put­ers enable more stor­age, inte­gra­tion and fus­ing of data, enabling the sys­tem to become a real-time gen­er­a­tor of infor­ma­tion.

“The next sub­stan­ti­a­tion of HART will be to enable dif­fer­ent kinds of sen­sors and infor­ma­tion to be on the net­work,” Win­ship says. “After that, the task will be to put a much more strate­gic lay­er on it [enabling] it to han­dle longer dis­tances, big­ger files and larg­er imagery. That will build out of the mid­dle lay­er.”

There is at least the vision of a recon­nais­sance-strike net­work with a the­ater-wide foot­print.

“It would be pos­si­ble to cre­ate a net­work that would reach from Hick­am [AFB, Hawaii] to col­lect infor­ma­tion on the Pacif­ic Rim,” Win­ship says. “But that’s not what we’re about right now.… [A]s long as there are the data links, we don’t care what the infor­ma­tion gath­er­er is or where it comes from. It doesn’t mat­ter if you are in the South Chi­na Sea or Kan­da­har, [Afghanistan].”

The HART tech­nol­o­gy also could be scaled and trans­ferred to both the strike and recon­nais­sance worlds.

“I’m a big believ­er in long-range strike, and I’ve been slug­ging away at [unmanned com­bat air sys­tems] for a long time,” Win­ship says. “[Some of us believe] that’s the way tech­nol­o­gy ought to move to get a good capa­bil­i­ty [for pen­e­trat­ing defenses]—which unmanned allows—and HART is a piece of that.

“No mat­ter what is done with long-range strike, whether sea- or land-based, algo­rithms like these enable long-range, per­sis­tent UAVs,” Win­ship says. “Algo­rithms that dis­con­nect long, bor­ing mis­sions from the con­stant atten­tion of an oper­a­tor are some­thing that has to be done any­way.”

There are oth­er com­bat ben­e­fits if some basic prob­lems can be solved.

“It’s easy for me to do a brief­ing on unmanned com­bat air sys­tems, but there is very lit­tle that can knit all these things togeth­er,” Win­ship says. “With HART, we’re enabling these lit­tle, inex­pen­sive UAVs and mak­ing them ‘no-kid­ding’ tar­get­ing weapons.”

Raytheon also is address­ing the con­cept. Researchers there have com­plet­ed the first test of the Minia­ture Air Launched Decoy Jam­mer (MALD‑J) in a sim­u­lat­ed oper­a­tional envi­ron­ment. The 300-lb. MALDs, some in free flight and oth­ers in cap­tive-car­ry, demon­strat­ed they could pro­tect manned air­craft through elec­tron­ic attack while oper­at­ing as part of a manned air­craft strike pack­age.

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