Author Archives: Beth Maundrill

Boeing buys another unmanned enterprise

Today’s big industry news sees Boeing expand its autonomous portfolio with the announcement that it is to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences.

Alongside Aurora, Boeing also added Liquid Robotics to its unmanned portfolio in December 2016. Liquid Robotics told me that it had been working more closely with Boeing’s other unmanned subsidiary, Insitu, on teaming unmanned sea and air assets together.

The acquisition of smaller outfits by large defence and aerospace companies has long been a trend in unmanned markets across the land, sea and air domains. Notably in 2016 General Dynamics Mission Systems acquired Bluefin Robotics and back in 2012 Lockheed Martin bought Procerus Technologies and now markets the Indago UAS.

With the unmanned marketplace containing many smaller companies, a visit to this year’s Xponential highlighted this, we are likely to see this type of consolidation continue.

The Boeing and Aurora teams have already worked together on various unmanned projects. Aurora has designed, produced and flown more than 30 unmanned air vehicles since the company was founded in 1989.

We spoke with Aurora earlier this year about one of its projects which it is developing with DARPA, the XV-24A UAS.

Watch this space because there is sure to be more to come.

Catching on: commercial UAS expansion

There is no doubt that the commercial unmanned market is continuing to grow in leaps and bounds. Many of the events aimed at the UV sector are now leaning increasingly towards non-military operators, and solely civil-focused unmanned events are now a firm fixture on our calendar.

An examination of the market shows there is huge opportunity for both the likes of DJI, providing small UAS to hobbyists and photographers, as well as the traditionally defence-orientated companies looking to service large industries such as energy and agriculture.

The latest issue of UV magazine looks into the commercial business units (CBU) that have been set up by such companies as they look to tap into what looks to be a lucrative market.

It is easy to recognise the likes of the Insitu ScanEagle and Textron Aerosonde as platforms initially made for the military. However, both companies are leading the commercial charge, and while they continue to maintain their relationships with government customers, executives are clearly looking to the future and a commercial world predicted to be worth billions of dollars.

What we have found to be most interesting about these commercial offerings is the idea of providing a whole service. It is understandable that, unlike government customers, those in the business world do not want the added expense of actually acquiring systems.

Additionally, the service concept puts a large focus on analytical tools. It was apparent at this year’s Xponential in Dallas that there is now an emphasis on data analytics within the unmanned market beyond simply the platforms themselves. Again, while government customers are able to pay for their own in-house analytics, commercial users prefer to contract someone to provide that as part of a service.

Textron and Insitu are now over 12 months into CBU operations and are both beginning to see the fruits of their labour, although at this time it is making up a small part of their profits.

One reassuring aspect of big defence organisations working in the commercial world is their know- how when it comes to regulations. Insitu told me that it continues to work with regulators on how best to incorporate UAS into commercial airspace and wants to lead by example.

While legislation on UAS is still in a state of flux, there is clearly a desire from industry to get it right. The misuse of UAS is only likely to damage opportunities in the future for those in the commercial market.

What is positive to see is a serious and thoughtful approach by the defence world to satisfy commercial requirements.

Military use of UAS also continues to move forward, with more demands being put on the platforms than ever before, including increased payload capacity, extended operational range and the fast collection of ISR data.

The enduring capability of tactical UAS is something that the same companies who are looking to the commercial market are trying to keep on top of. Military contracts continue to come thick and fast.

Again, the challenge for those key players who currently dominate US and European military procurement will be transitioning this success to the commercial world.

Competition will come from disruptive new players entering the market. While we have seen plenty of start-ups attending events with small quadcopters, there is also room for companies with new business models that appeal to the commercial customer.

Defence companies are set to make a bigger splash in the civil market – they have now gone well beyond just dipping their toes in the water, and Shephard will continue to follow the CBU journey closely.

DSEI video highlights

The recently concluded DSEI exhibition brought us new robots, boats and vehicles and the Shephard news team caught it all on video.

If you missed any of the action here are some of the video highlights from the week.

The UK based consortium led by MBDA and Leonardo showcased its Dragonfire capability for a laser directed energy weapon system.

Rheinmetall came to the show with a weaponised UGV.

On the water Supacat unveiled and demonstrated a new RIB, the SC12.

Back on dry land Harris was awarded a contract by the UK MoD for its T7 Counter IED UGV.

Finally, our very own Grant Turnbull gives us a rundown of some of his highlights from the event.

For all the coverage and even more video content from the show head to the Shephard Media website.

Diving deep into submarine tech

In the latest issue of International Maritime and Port Security magazine I had the pleasure of cover the thriving diesel-electric (SSK) submarine industry.

Editor, Richard Thomas, investigated this sector previously in the subsea warfare market report and found a sector experiencing a relative boom time, even in regions (such as Europe) that are experiencing a general contraction in naval significance and industrial output.

A series of SSK programmes in Germany, Sweden, Italy and Norway is keeping that region active for both operator and industry alike. In Asia requirements for India and Pakistan attract significant interest and industrial cooperation inside those countries, while Asia-Pacific rivals also seek to expand their subsurface fleets in a continual game of defence one-upmanship.

A Swedish Gotland Class submarine currently going through mid-life upgrades with Saab.

China is emerging as a defence influencer in the region having agreed a series of submarine procurement programmes with neighbours, while Japan and South Korea try to challenge this with their own domestic and international efforts.

We introduce submarines then into this magazine in recognition of the role that smaller SSKs play in maintaining security in the EEZs and littorals, conducting special operations against target coastlines or surveillance missions to gather valuable intelligence.

The industry supporting the demand is global, with boat builders from West to East all pursuing rich contracts and new markets. Indeed, SSKs are perhaps one of the most adaptable and effective platforms that a navy can operate, particularly because most of the time potential rivals don’t know they are being surveilled in the first place.

The U-32 is the second Type 212A submarine used by the German Navy.

Technology in propulsion and battery technology is pushing back against one of the limiting factors that SSKs have to contend with – the need to surface and run its diesels to recharge capacitors. The boats fitted with such capabilities can now stay underwater for significantly greater periods of time and maximising their use to the fleet.

Big floating runway attracts uninvited guests

As the UK awaits the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth at its new home in Portsmouth it was reported over the weekend that a hobbyist drone landed on the deck on the £3 billion vessel.

If it were not for the Royal Navy’s (RN) Merlin helicopters landing on its deck during sea trials this could have been an embarrassing first deck landing on the carrier.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said it is investigating the incident which took place during sea trials.

But it raises the question about how secure the carrier is at present against small unmanned threats. Media reports contradicted themselves with some stating the system used was a DJI Phantom, while others said it was a Parrot Bebop.

The US military recently ordered personnel to cease using UAS from Chinese manufacturer DJI on account of possible security threats. In April the FAA restricted drone operations across 133 military facilities, addressing national security concerns regarding unauthorised used of UAVs.

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DJI’s Phantom 4 quadcopter, widely used by hobbyists.

Transferring this type of restriction to the maritime environment is likely to throw up issues but these examples highlight how the US is getting serious about commercial drones in the military environment and the threat they pose.

Also, as we recently discussed here on Quill, non-state actors are starting to seriously use unmanned vehicles with a range of payloads, predominantly ‘dumb’ munitions.

So is this a recipe for disaster for the RN’s newest and most expensive vessel?

Well of course the MoD will now be investigating the incident and is reviewing the security of the vessel.

Also it should be noted that the vessel is not fully operational yet and does not have its full crew on board. One would hope during operations the story would be somewhat different.

This is not the first incident of drones getting close to maritime assets. Earlier in August it was reported that an Iranian drone flew close to a USN F-18 as as it prepared to land on the nearby US carrier in the Persian Gulf.

Would it be out of the question for maritime adversaries to interfere with RN ships using small drones? All very hypothetical but not to be dismissed.

 

HMMWV, the ultimate driverless car

HMMWV, Humvee or the Hummer, whatever you want to call it most people will recognise the famous four wheel drive vehicle.

First entering service in the mid-1980s there are now at least 230,000 HMMWVs in service both in and around 60 nations. It is not surprising that some users have sought to modify the vehicle which will turn it into an autonomous UGV.

That’s right, an unmanned HMMWV.

The Israel Defence Force (IDF) recently publicised its efforts to develop the unmanned capability, releasing a video of the unmanned HMMWV in July.

The IDF has been working with IAI on the technology and recently I spoke with the company about their roboticist technology which has been incorporated into the vehicle. You can read the full story here. 

But what’s the point?

Well, although it has not been confirmed by either the IDF or IAI, it seems likely that if you kept the remote weapon station on the vehicle with the aid of cameras and sensors the unmanned HMMWV could become the ultimate border patrol vehicle.

The video appears to show the IDF’s unmanned HMMWV with the Rafael Mini Typhoon weapon station.

However, Israel is not the only nation developing this technology. The US military is set to have a live demonstration of such a vehicle later on this month as the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning looks to develop this technology.

Watch this space as there is certainly more developments to come regarding the unmanned HMMWV.

Royal Navy: Maintaining the fleet

The UK’s Royal Navy is patiently awaiting the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) carrier at its new home in Portsmouth in the coming weeks.

On Monday I visited Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) Portsmouth to find out more about some of the other class of ships based there, the Type 23 and 45, but I also got a glimpse at some of the impressive infrastructure at the base which will support QEC.

Navigation aids have been installed to guide the 280m vessel into the port. There is also an onshore power generation source which will keep the vessel running while it is docked and an airport-style arrivals hall to support the 500-plus contractors which will be coming and going from the carrier each day when in Portsmouth.

Meanwhile, on 1 August, it was announced that £3 million was to be saved on the QEC as part of a new deal to supply the RN with more than 10,000 different types of consumable items – covering everything from fittings and fixtures to pistons and pumps.

It ought to be noted that maintenance of such a vessel is no mean feat, Babcock currently has a contract to do so.

While I was at HMNB I spoke with BAE Systems about some of its experiences maintaining the RN’s Type 45 and Type 23 fleets.

The Type 45 has notably been making headlines with various issues with its propulsion systems and at one time all six were seen to be alongside or in dock at one time.

BAE Systems has said that one of the lessons learned from its support of the Type 45 programme is the need to have spares readily available.

Additionally, there was supposed to be one serious mid-life upgrade but a continuous engineering philosophy was adopted with a lot of the maintenance to be done during fleet time under the original BAE Systems contract. That was the concept as it evolved over a decade ago, according to BAE Systems.

The reality has been that the ships staff have been required to do much more than operate and maintain only – something the enterprise should have thought about beforehand, BAE admitted.

A single mid-life upgrade just did not work and capability insertion has been a continuous feature for the Type 45s.

An ongoing effort, Project Napier, is also being carried out to enhance the vessel’s power and propulsion systems

The Type 45s are now moving to a common support model which will see DE&S take over more of the maintenance, supported by BAE Systems. Design, maintenance and equipment management will return to DE&S and the QEC will follow this model from the outset.

The company is already working with teams to implement this support model on the future Type 26s and it has been implemented on the Type 23s.

With new vessels coming into service it is imperative that the RN looks closely at both the successes and failings of previous projects.

More on this, lessons learned and future plans for maintenance can be found on the Shephard Media website.

 

 

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