Category Archives: Heads Up

Revolutionary Road: the path to greater autonomy

During a recent trip to Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of exploring several sights in that beautiful city, including the National Museum of Scotland. There, among the displays – which highlight the country’s contribution to advances in areas such as science, medicine and engineering – was a robot called Freddy.

Its simple name belies its revolutionary nature, since much of the technology written about in the current, and pretty much all issues of Shephard Media’s Unmanned Vehicles magazine can likely be traced back to Freddy.

This particular robot was developed in the 1970s by a talented team from Edinburgh University’s then Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception. It was given the task of assembling wooden toy components presented to it in a ‘jumbled heap’.

Freddy the robot

Using a robotic arm with grippers, a camera and a basic computer, Freddy was able to take the pieces and assemble a wooden toy car. Limited computing power at the time meant this process took around 16 hours to complete.

Nevertheless, this was an incredibly complex endeavour and some even believed it was impossible. But those pioneering developers proved the doubters wrong and led the way in artificial perception and its translation into intelligent, human-like responses through computer processing and complex algorithms.

Indeed, read through the current edition of UV UV Front Cover(Volume 22 Issue 2) and you will see a common theme: the pursuit of increased autonomy for unmanned platforms.

The basic concept remains the same as it did for Freddy over 40 years ago – a UV senses its surroundings and makes intelligent decisions about the task for which it has been designated (and even those for which it has not). Advances in sensors, computer processing and artificial intelligence means that, yes, the main idea is similar, but what is achievable is vastly different.

In the edition, writer Rory Jackson examines how UGV OEMs are continuing to insert autonomous functions into their vehicles, mirroring efforts within the commercial automotive world when it comes to the driverless car revolution.

Companies such as Oshkosh, Lockheed Martin and start-up Milrem have pursued a roadmap of greater autonomy to ease soldier burden and increase safety, while at the same time attempting to lower costs. I visited Milrem in Estonia recently to see first-hand how the company is expanding its workforce as it looks to advance autonomous capabilities for its THeMIS UGV.

Milrem THeMIS

In the air domain, UAVs are integrating more intelligent features, including technologies like sense and avoid, not only to ease integration into airspace occupied by manned aircraft and enable beyond-line-of-light operations – as Beth Stevenson details in her analysis of the current state of UAS regulation in the US – but also when it comes to controlling systems, or multiple systems (ie swarms), through a ground control station (GCS).

In this edition, Angus Batey runs through GCS and C2 technologies for UAVs and how there will be extra considerations for air forces as they bring capabilities such as stealth UAVs into service in the future.

RS20416_UK - Secrets Taking Flight

Much will depend on how an advanced stealth platform makes decisions by itself, rather than today’s UAV concept of operations that sees a reliance on external human commands sent via SATCOM. These signals would likely give away a stealth aircraft’s position to enemy air defences.

Another area where platform autonomy will be crucial is underwater. Much like contested airspace in a warzone, communication links to and from a deep-sea robot are inherently difficult. This means that the more decisions an AUV can make by itself, the better.

Heidi Vella explores this in more detail for UV with her take on the growing use of AUVs in the commercial world, and importantly, the challenges still present.

NASA demonstration.jpg

The key to the adoption of autonomous vehicles will be quantitative evidence that investing in the technology, however expensive, will eventually bring down cost of operations, while also increasing safety and productivity.

So, as you read through our current issue of UV, remember that Freddy, the pioneering Scottish robot, and his legacy, lives on. For those of us who are following the developments in this exciting sector, it will be interesting to see which one of the technologies within this issue, and future editions of UV, will have such a revolutionary effect that we will also be talking about it in 40 years’ time.

The April/May edition of Unmanned Vehicles is out now, download a FREE copy through Shephard Media’s Android and Apple apps.

Is US SOCOM’s load too heavy?

Earlier this year President Trump gave his blessing for more ‘beautiful equipment’ for US Special Forces Command, but the organisation has serious issues with over-extension and ever-increasing commitments.

Since its creation 30 years ago it has grown in size and taken on more responsibilities but does that still make it ‘special’ or just another army within an army? At over 56,000 people strong and with a global reach it is the service that most SF units around the world look to for leadership and both technical and tactical developments.

But with a list of at least a dozen core commitments from special reconnaissance and unconventional warfare through to counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and foreign humanitarian assistance it is difficult for even a force of this size to maintain the required levels of expertise.

US Congress has warned about these issues in a report in January and it remains to be seen how the new Trump administration and in particular the new National Security Adviser, Lt Gen McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis foresee the role of USSOCOM.

A more robust approach to engaging in operations has already seen an increase in operational tempo and the death of a US Navy SEAL in Yemen in January, but this will impact the organisation.

It is possible that the promise to increase military spending will see USSOCOM grow even more and improve its capabilities or perhaps larger conventional forces will be able to take on some of the responsibilities allowing US Special Forces to stay focused on a smaller number of key tasks and roles (see the April-May edition of Land Warfare International for more).

US Army’s bionic arm needs improvement, this is how

Alleviating the weight burden on soldiers is a never-ending task. Armies are always on the look out for novel equipment and technology that lessen the burden – not always necessarily by reducing weight, but helping him or her carry a large load instead.

One of the latest technologies to come out of the US is a bionic ‘third arm’, created by the US Army Research Lab, which helps soldiers carry a weapon such as the issue M16/M4 rifle.

Now, I’m always keen to hear about weight-saving technologies and devices that can make tabbing and fighting with heavy kit are little more bearable (it can be a pretty horrible experience), but I’m sceptical about the arm:

The bionic arm weighs around 2kg and attaches to the soldier’s protective vest, which means reducing weight on a soldier’s upper body and potentially freeing up the arms for other tasks.

Now, this looks pretty interesting when it’s on an exhibition floor and makes a great story, but as ever with this type of technology it throws up a lot of questions about how this would be utilised ‘in the field’.

When soldiers and light infantry are attacking positions, they spend a lot of time in different positions, including standing, kneeling, lying flat (or prone) and everything in between.

There’s also generally a lot of running, crawling and climbing – depending on the terrain and fighting environment – which means your kit (and body) goes through some serious punishment.

For me, I think the arm would actually be a hindrance in those situations, rather than a help. The M4/M16 is not exactly a heavy weapon, in fact it’s one of the lightest assault rifles in the world, so having an extra bionic appendage to help carry it seems a little strange. But it could lead to some interesting technological developments, so I won’t write it off completely.

Now where this could find some purpose is carrying heavy weaponry, much like the soldiers in the film Alien 2 that use a similar articulated arm. The researchers have already said they are interested in attaching the M249 and M240 – but let’s think bigger!

My advise, swap out the lightweight M16/M4 for a beastly 7.62mm M134 Minigun capable of spewing out thousands of round per minute. Now this would be something that would significantly increase the lethality of the individual soldier and his squad.

Also it means that soldiers can recreate this epic scene from Terminator 2.

Or, better yet, that awesome scene from Predator:

Food for thought.

Staying peerless on the battlefield

Shephard Media has suddenly become a lot more acquainted with the world of military special forces following our acquisition of Special Operations Forces (SOF) magazine.

As if the critical role that SOF operators play in current campaigns was not obvious enough, opening the recent AFCEA West exhibition, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe was clear about the need for ‘peerless special forces’.

ADM James G. Stavridis, US Navy (retired), placed an unrivalled SOF capability alongside advances in cyber and unmanned systems as essential for US forces to meet current and emerging threats.

‘You are going to see some changes to that traditional force, which I would argue for the navy, for example, ought to be around 340 ships. But you are going to need better cyber capability; we are going to need bet­ter unmanned platforms, including those operating in the maritime space and the overhead; and we are going to need peerless Special Forces,’ ADM Stavridis told the gathered delegates.

He cited the example of US Navy SEAL Michael Murphy who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2005 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during Operation Red Wings.

‘Today he is memorialised in the destroyer USS Michael Murphy. We need peerless special forces like Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL, but also he represents in my mind all of the wonderful volunteers in the services who stand on the wall at night and protect us.’

One crucial element in the Pentagon’s security strategy is the role SOF units are playing in building partner nations SF capacity, which is a central theme to our second issue of 2017.

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In a comprehensive commentary, Lt Gen Ken Tovo and Lt Col Duane Mosier outline the ways in which members of US SOF continue to develop effective partner forces in countries around the world, helping them to win against determined enemies.

Providing examples from Afghanistan, Colombia and Iraq, the US Army Special Operations Com­mand (USASOC) leadership outlines how US SOF has ‘built, trained and developed effective partner forces through persistent and deliberate engagement’.

Elsewhere in the issue, we speak to the head of Special Operations Command in Spain about the new command’s success in coordinating the country’s Army, Air Force and Navy SOF.

Brig Gen Jaime Íñiguez Andrade explains that, in line with the creation of joint commands in other Western countries, the development of the new command and increased resources Madrid has allocated to SOF activities is a recognition of the importance of SF in light of current threats.

We also look at the development of SOF units across Latin America, frequently in partnership with the US, as well as the introduction of new technologies to make working within an interna­tional coalition easier and more effective.

Current operations are demanding more and more from the SOF community, forcing operators to seek new force-multiplying technologies across a widening spectrum of mission sets.

This is most prevalent across the Middle East – particularly the partnering missions with Iraqi and Kurdish forces against Daesh – and Eastern Europe, where coalitions of SOF units are central to ongoing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns.

U.S. Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk during Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction training as part of Emerald Warrior at Hurlburt Field, Fla., April 22, 2015. Emerald Warrior is the Department of Defense's only irregular warfare exercise, allowing joint and combined partners to train together and prepare for real world contingency operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenneth W. Norman/Released)

US Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk.

From Russia’s electronic warfare capability to the (increasingly armed) airborne ISR assets developed by Daesh, emerging new threats will require SOF units to work ever harder to remain ‘peerless’ on the battlefield.

That’s not a Reaper, this is a Reaper

Those of us in the defence industry often get in a huff when the mainstream media fail to accurately identify military kit. Of course, we know the difference between an armoured personnel carrier, an infantry fighting vehicle and a main battle tank – though it appears to be a monumental challenge for those that don’t cover defence every day.

At best, it can lead to some embarrassing headlines and, at worst, just plain inaccurate reporting. That’s been covered here on the pages of Quill before not only by myself (see ‘Toothbrush-size gun’) and also by the boss, Mr Viper (see ‘That’s a load of tank’).

But it’s a never-ending quest to educate, especially when some news outlets get it so blatantly wrong. Take, for example, a widely-published story last week that stated that Daesh (Islamic State) had developed an armed drone capability similar to that of the US Air Force’s infamous MQ-9 Reaper. The Daily Mirror reported:

The weapon appears to be based on the deadly MQ-9 ‘predator’ aircraft which is used by the American military and manufactured by California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

Before I’ve read the story, or even seen any photos – I know this isn’t even remotely possible.

First off, when fully-loaded with its high-tech weapons and secretive sensors, a Reaper weighs around 5 tons, which means it needs a runway at a dedicated air base to take off and land from. Despite being ‘unmanned’ it also requires a significant manpower contribution to fly, maintain, load with weapons, fill with fuel, operate sensors, analyse intel data etc.

In other words, only really a first-tier air force – like the USAF or RAF – can operate an advanced armed platform like the MQ-9. Daesh is not a first-tier air force. In fact, it has no air force at all.


Indeed, once you look at the photos/video of the ‘ISIS Reaper’ it becomes clear that it certainly is no Reaper.

In fact, it’s a hand-launched flying-wing UAV (probably weighing around 10-15kg), equipped with what look like rudimentary bombs on either wing. Now I’m not saying that it cannot be a deadly weapon, but its simplicity means that its battlefield utility is likely minimal.

There are already examples of Daesh utilising commercial drones, mainly quadcopters, as delivery vehicles for improvised explosive devices. There have even been some small-scale successes where groups of soldiers have been caught off-guard by a hovering quadcopter dropping a grenade from above.

The guidance system for the quadcopters has simply been gravity. But guiding ‘dumb’ bombs becomes much more difficult when you use fast-moving, fixed-wing aircraft such as the one seen above.

Before the advent of smart bombs guided by GPS or laser, dropping bombs and achieving the desired effect on target was as much an art as a skill, and always required a specialist ‘bombardier’ in the aircraft. As aerial bombers advanced, the addition of more capable bombsights increased accuracy further.

Something tells me the Daesh Reaper will lack any sophisticated bomb-aiming equipment, guided missiles, or even skilled pilots for that matter. To be truly deadly, UAVs require smart weapons such as the Hellfire or GBU-12 Paveway, both of which are on the MQ-9 Reaper.

RPA maintainers support Red Flag 16-3

The complexities involved in arming drones has meant only a handful of other countries have invested in developing the technology. That’s slowly changing, but mainly because China is establishing its own armed drone capability with smart weapon integration, which it seems happy to export to other countries around the world.

Nevertheless, I would not underestimate the Daesh UAV just yet. It might not have the capability to match an MQ-9 Reaper or Chinese Wing Loong, though it could replicate a new capability emerging in the defence space; the loitering armed ‘kamikaze’ drone.

For me, the new Daesh UAV has more similarities with equipment such as Aerovironment’s Switchblade UAV, which can provide full-motion video to troops on the ground but with a high-explosive warhead can, once it has identified a suitable target, be guided into the vehicle/building/person like a guided missile.

Once Daesh realise that releasing bombs from a UAV is a futile endeavor,  we could potentially see them adopt this kamikaze UAV concept of operations. That’s why many militaries, particularly those in Iraq, are investing in counter-UAV technologies and will have to continue to do so for the forseeable future.

Maybe the mainstream media can focus on this in the future, rather than making far-fetched comparisons that are blatantly wrong.

If you wish to read more on armed UAVs and also China’s emerging combat UAV capabilities, see the Feb/Mar edition of Unmanned Vehicles.

Has the UK Helicopter industry seen better days?

In a quiet, rather unremarkable town in the southwest of England called Yeovil – there is a helicopter manufacturing site.

However, this could be under threat as this specialist industry might be slipping from the UK altogether.

Why the jitters though? Well, it seems like the Leonardo Helicopters site, formally AgustaWestland, in Yeovil is not what it once was despite its long history there.

Marcus Fysh, Conservative MP for Yeovil, held a UK parliamentary debate on the UK helicopter industry on 24 January highlighting its importance and also stressing concerns about its decline.

Over the years, the Yeovil site has manufactured the Westland Wessex, the Sea King, the Lynx, the Merlin and now the Wildcat.

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One of the biggest blows came in summer 2016 when Boeing was awarded a contract for 50 AH-64E Apaches for the British Army, to be manufactured in the US, rather than opting for the alternative of having Leonardo Helicopters retrofit UK Apaches.

Previously, the AH-64D Apache Longbow kits had been delivered to Leonardo Helicopters UK, known as AgustaWestland at the time, to be assembled. This has long been seen to be a costly exercise to the UK taxpayer.

With this Leonardo is hoping it will gain a support contract for the aircraft. It is currently supporting the AH-64Ds until their end of service in 2023/24.

Another issue, noted by Fysh, is that of the Wildcat airframes.

‘There is a live issue involving the Wildcat airframe jigs, as anyone who has been following it will know. It is a relatively small issue within the overall scheme of the industry, but it is an important signal that we want to be able to manufacture helicopters end-to-end in the Yeovil area,’ he said.

GKN, who manufactures the airframe, has said it will close its site as Leonardo is set to bring this component in- house.

The government currently owns the airframe jigs and tooling to support the job but Leonardo wishes to move this over to its site in Poland.

A decision on this is yet to be made.

Meanwhile, Leonardo is seeking to strengthen its UK-based operations as it now operates as Leonardo MW Ltd.

Leonardo MW Ltd apparently symbolises the Westland helicopters and the Marconi electronic element of the company.

Though the military side may be uncertain, Leonardo and its Yeovil plant play a key role in the production of rotor blades and tail rotor transmission system for the AW169.

Debates and UK parliamentary questioning about the future of this industry are likely to be ongoing but at the moment for those working in the UK-side of the industry there are uncertain times ahead.

What do you think of the state of the UK’s helicopter industry? How do you think it compares with other nations? Let us know in the comments below.

Model Masterplan

By Gerrard Cowan

The US Navy (USN) first deployed the MH-60R Seahawk in 2009, and will receive its final scheduled deliveries of the helicopter in the summer of 2018.

While the aircraft has been in service for some years now, it continually receives upgrades and modifications to allow it to adapt to an evolving operational environment.

The Romeo variant is primarily focused on ASW and ASuW, with secondary missions including SAR and medevac.

According to manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the platform – along with its sibling, the MH-60S – has flown more than 650,000 hours across a 500-plus fleet. It is deployed with both the USN and a number of export customers.


(All images: Lockheed Martin)

The most recent batch for the service was procured in FY2016, making a total of 280 platforms, said Capt Craig Grubb, manager of the navy’s H-60 programme. The final set of 29 MH-60Rs is known as Lot 14, and will be delivered in June 2018.

The acquisition is part of a rotorcraft masterplan, designed to take seven different types and replace them with the two MH-60 variants, and the programme is almost complete.

According to Grubb, the SH-60F retired in the spring of 2016 and the SH-60B retired in 2015.

There are still a few HH-60Hs remaining in the fleet, which he said will be in service through FY2019 and possibly longer. ‘They’re pretty valued by the fleet, so there’s a lot of consideration being given to keeping those aircraft in service longer,’ he told DH.

The MH-60R and MH-60S are enduring platforms that are likely to be around for decades, said Chris Stellwag, director of marketing communications at CAE Defence & Security, which provides the USN and international customers with simulators and other training devices for the aircraft.

‘One of the advantages for foreign militaries when they acquire a platform like that is they’re getting the benefit of the significant investment the USN is making in the continual upgrades and enhancements to a fleet of 500-plus helicopters,’ he commented.

This meant that international customers were able to leverage the investment the USN is making in enhancing the aircraft, through new sensor suites, weapon systems or countermeasures, for example.


Additionally, it boosted interoperability with their US ally. Stellwag said the helicopter was an attractive, low-risk and cost-effective platform. ‘We’re always conscious of maintaining strong positions in platforms that we think are enduring, and that’s what we’ve successfully been able to do so far with the Seahawk,’ he said.

‘We definitely see opportunities over the next decade with other countries, and continued improvements and enhancements to the suite of training systems that the USN uses.’

While the navy is in only the very early phases of exploring what a successor to the MH-60 might look like, there is an interest in being able to migrate the work done on the mid-life upgrade onto another platform at a later date.

For more on the USN’s MH-60R programme looking ahead to mid-life upgrades and an eventual successor, please see the January/February edition of Defence Helicopter for further details.

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