Tag Archives: Reaper

The World According to Shephard: Week 48

This week has demonstrated that the world of military simulation is very much alive and flourishing as the Shephard team has spent the week in Orlando bringing you all the latest news from the industry’s annual meet. You can find all of the coverage from I/ITSEC here.

Armed to the hilt

The US Air Force’s MQ-9 Reapers are to get an ammunition boost with the integration of small diameter bombs onto the platforms. General Atomics was awarded a $17.5 million contract to kit out the UAS with GBU-39Bs.

Meanwhile the H145M will begin live fire tests of Airbus Helicopter’s HForce weapon system loaded with Thales’ FZ275 laser guided rockets. The new live fire tests follow on from successful ballistic development testing of the system.

BREAKING: New Block 5 MQ-9 debuts in combat

‘The secret of war lies in the communications’

Napoleon’s tools of communication may have looked dramatically different from today’s but their importance on the battlefield has not changed. Last week saw Thales demonstrate its new family of Software Defined Radios, Synaps, which they believe represents the future of ‘collaborative combat’ for the modern connected military.

Australia has approved Project Land 200 Tranche 2 as the country pushes to digitalise its armed forces with a new battlefield command system for the army. The system will enable commanders to plan, monitor, direct and review operations in real time.


Shipbuilders back in business

The second of the Mexican Navy’s updated Oaxaca-class patrol vessels has been commissioned into its fleet. This comes at the end of a year that has seen the navy’s fleet expanded considerably with new patrol vessels as significant investments have been made in the country’s critical infrastructure and shipbuilding capability.

Meanwhile in Indonesia the shipbuilder PT Palindo Marine launched a 110m OPV designed for the country’s coast guard agency. Indonesia has been developing its indigenous shipbuilding expertise and is soon likely to see the navy’s seventh landing platform dock begin construction.


Saab Kockums has begun construction on parts of the hull for the Royal Swedish navy’s new A26 class submarine. Saab is also upgrading the RSN’s Gotland-class submarines with a new combat management system and other capabilities which will be carried across to the A26.

How to solve a problem like drones

The European Parliament and European Council reached an informal agreement this week to introduce union-wide rules on the civil use of unmanned systems. The design and manufacture of UVs will have to comply with EU basic requirements on safety, security and data protection.

Also in Europe, Endeavor Robotics has delivered 44 FirstLook UGVs to Germany as the company continues to enjoy a bumper year. The UGV, which can be dropped from 16ft onto hard surfaces without sustaining damage, is used by a wide range of civil, parapublic and military customers around the world and has won a number of large contracts with the US.



Situations vacant

MQ-1 Predator

MQ-1 Predator

The latest from the Pentagon is that by 2019 UAV operations, specifically those carried out by Reaper and Predator, will be increased by up to 50% from around 60 a day to 90.

While this news is unsurprising when looking at the current climate, increased activity in North Africa, Syria, Iraq, the South China Sea and Ukraine, the move looks to put extra strain on already overworked RPA pilots.

As it stands RPA pilots are completing around 900 flying hours per year compared with fighter pilots completing just 250. RPAs also make up the one of the biggest fleets of aircraft in the US inventory.

Here’s a snapshot of how many UAVs are in active service:

Gray Eagle

Gray Eagle

MQ-1 Predator – 154

MQ-9 Reaper – 104

MQ-1C Grey Eagle – 75

RQ-4 Global Hawk – 37

RQ-7 Shadow – 500

MQ-8 Fire Scout – 27

K-Max – 1

Some may argue that a fighter pilot has a more strenuous job physically than a Predator pilot but, while that may be up for discussion, it seems on paper that UAV pilots are indeed being stretched (do comment below with your thoughts).

RQ-4 Block 10 Global Hawk

RQ-4 Block 10 Global Hawk

As it stands the DoD is having trouble keeping hold of experienced RPA pilots and it has been widely reported that there is a shortage of pilots. One solution that the air force has come up with is monetary incentives with a $15,000 dollar bonus a year to RPA pilots. This will take effect as of 2016.

However, throwing money at the problem might not be the best solution. A $15,000 golden handshake may incentivise current pilots to stay in the job but what about filling additional gaps where RPAS operators are required?

The USAF has also stated that it will be investing $100 million to procure more ground control stations, simulators and instructors for the training of new RPA pilots. This is yet to be approved by congress.

MQ-9 Reaper pilots at Holloman AF base

MQ-9 Reaper pilots at Holloman AF base

If the Pentagon is going to increase operations as planned then training new recruits is going to need significant investment in the near future. With a deficit in pilots the military is also facing a shortage of instructors to teach new pilots.

Keep an eye out for the next issue of Unmanned Vehicles magazine where I will be exploring the deficit in RPA instructors, coordination of training between the services and where investment in training is headed.

The Coming Disruption in UAS

The UAS market is on the cusp of a huge disruption which will see the rise of new innovative firms and almost certainly the demise of some currently established players. The root of this disruption: the opening of civil airspace to unmanned systems.

In the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) plans to have regulations in place for the safe integration of civil UAS into the U.S. National Airspace System by September 30 2015, a date which will mark the opening of a major new market for unmanned systems. Earlier this year Kaman, which produces the K-max unmanned helicopter, said it expects to see unmanned helicopters flying for commercial US customers within 5 years.

TKamax wiki commonshis poses a key question to stakeholders in the UAS community – governments, military and industry – how do they meet the challenge and reap the benefits of a major change in what is currently a stable sector.

The UAS sector is currently dominated by firms that operate in the defence and security sector. Military requirements have driven the development of UAS up to now and there has been a very limited commercial market as civilian airspace restrictions have prevented their use in most civil areas.

The firms at the forefront of UAS development are used to dealing with military requirements and timescales which involve significant engagement with the customer and can be developed over years, if not decades. They are often publically held and while they invest in R&D often have cumbersome structures in place to monitor investment, which can inhibit innovation.

There is also a focus on the big-ticket systems – tactical UAS such as Predator/Reaper, the UK’s Watchkeeper, the future unmanned combat aircraft (UCAV) that is the subject of UK-French co-operation, with billions of dollars and pounds invested in developing the capability.

However, there are a trends in the UAS space which are laying the foundations for change. The first is the increasing commoditisation of platform and components – particularly sensors and power plants. Linked to this is the increasing importance of the software that delivers the capability – whether it is path finding, sensor fusion or data analysis. The real ‘value-add’ in the UAS space right now is not hardware but software and it is the software side that will determine who is successful in the future UAS market.

This is crucial because once the civil airspace market opens up it will trigger an explosion of interest, investment and innovation in commercial UAS. The established players will suddenly be facing competition from a whole new generation of small, agile, software led companies vying for contracts to provide the brains for a new generation of civil UAS platforms.

This sudden increase in competition has the potential to result in a frenzy of rapid innovations and advances in key areas like sense and avoid, autonomy, data and sensor analysis.

These platforms may initially be small or micro-level platforms (glorified remote control vehicles), but the increase in demand that will come from the opening of the skies will inevitably lead to rapid progression in size and capability.

The risk for operators is that their expensive, bespoke military systems may rapidly be equalled or even exceeded by commercially available technology in all but the most expensive and advanced military systems, rendering all that valuable investment obsolete.

Rapid advances in commercial technology may drive down costs for defence UAS, but this also has a flip side. Reduced costs will lead to greater proliferation of UAS systems and technology to state and non-state actors, potentially presenting new threats to be countered in the military domain.

This new world is already starting to build. I recently spoke with Matt Parker, Precision Director of UAS Operations in the US (one of the largest, if not the largest, private sector operator of UAS in the world) who told me that he’s already seeing the emergence of a new type of competitor: small companies springing up trying to leverage off-the-shelf remote controlled aircraft technology with in-house developed or open source autopilots – and their approach is revealing.

“While we’ve been talking to government level customers, the DoD, SOCOM, they’ve been talking to tech investors and getting money to enter the market,” he says.

It may not just be the small tech start-up that disrupt – the lure of a new market will also entice major players from other sectors who may then end up competing in the military UAS as well as civilian markets.

While Parker says that these new entrants operate “at a different level” to Precision, the question he and other UAS manufacturers and operators will need to answer in the near future is: how long until that changes – and are they ready?

By Matthew Smith