Tag Archives: unmanned vehicles

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.

Thales

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.

Indonesia_OPV_-_small

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.

FirstLook

 

The World According to Shephard: Week 44

NATO SOF prepare for battle

NATO special operations forces have taken part in an exercise across eastern Europe  involving scenarios loosely based on recent Russian incursions into Ukraine. The exercise was designed to enable NATO and non-NATO entity special forces to counter an invasion by an enemy force as well as ‘diversionary’ forces.

The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) hosted its ThunderDrone Prototype Rodeo, the culmination of the first in a series of rapid prototyping events that began in September. The results are expected to go beyond the physical drone with its mechanical features, autonomy, swarming and machine learning all being explored.

POL_SOF_6

Swarms of unmanned requirements

The Australian Army is also enhancing its aerial unmanned capabilities with the procurement of FLIR Systems’ PD-100 Black Hornet 2 nano-UAVs. The deal will increase the Army’s Black Hornet fleet to over 150 providing enough to equip every army combat team at the platoon and troop level with an organic reconnaissance capability.

The US Navy’s requirement for an unmanned Carrier-Based Aerial-Refuelling System has hit a bump in the road after Northrop Grumman withdrew from the MQ-25 Stingray programme following changes to the programme requirements. There is a risk that further changes could see other competitors to follow suit.

Boeing_MQ-25_Sunset_Carrier

Meanwhile in Israel the country’s first commercialised AUV, the HydroCamel II has completed over 250 hours of sea trials in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. According to the system’s developers at Ben-Gurion University, the AUV’s autonomy and manoeuvrability capabilities set it apart from its competitors.

Watching the ships roll in

Above sea the Ukrainian coast guard is bolstering its fleet by purchasing up to 25 new high-speed patrol boats. The acquisition is part of Ukraine’s strategy for maritime security at each seaport to be ensured by a squadron of boats including unmanned patrol boats, a patrol attack boat, a high-speed interceptor, a coast guard boat and a new trimaran.

However in the UK the Royal Navy found itself in hot water this week after the National Audit Office published its investigation into equipment cannibalisation in the navy. The report found that between April 2012 and March 2017 there was a 49% increase in the practice with 60% of instances occurring between 2016 and 2017.

Picture are, on the left RFA GOLD ROVER, and on her right HMS LANCASTER sailing together on Atlantic Patrol Task (South) duties.

In Poland it has emerged that the Polish Navy may be forced to decommission its only Kilo-class submarine, ORP Orzel after a fire broke out on the boat. The fire is believed to have begun while crew members were discharging the submarine’s batteries while moored in the north of the country.

The digital battlespace

Moving into the digital world where the defence industry may be on the brink of a revolution as blockchain service providers  report increasing levels of interest from the industry. While the exact nature and extent of the impact blockchain will have remains uncertain, it is clear that this technology is here to stay.

Meanwhile Thales is in the process of analysing logged data from the recent Formidable Shield ballistic missile defence exercise to see if modifications made to its SMART-L Multi Mission radar can further enhance the technology. During the exercise the radar was able to detect the missile from a distance of 1,500km.

Thales

In the race to advance electronic warfare capabilities the US is expediting efforts to field technology into theatre that enables critical vehicle systems to remain functional in GPS-denied environments. GPS signals are increasingly vulnerable to jamming or spoofing by adversaries such as Russia who are actively deploying advanced EW capabilities.

 

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.

How to name your drone

This writer enjoyed a nice bit of banter recently when having posted a story about the French Patroller UAV, a question was posed on social media asking why a more pugilistic nom de guerre was not chosen to boost potential exports.

It’s an interesting point and makes you wonder just what hidden meanings are being kept in the naming of an unmanned system.

Some go for the avian theme because, you know, UAVs fly and stuff. Some examples and in no particular order includes the ScanEagle, Desert Hawk, Heron and Global Hawk. China took this a step further with its Wing Loong family, translating into something like Pterodactyl. Apparently.

Abstracts are also well represented as well as names that infer protection, security, destruction and oblivion. Again, in an order chosen entirely by rolling a dice, we have the Reaper, the Shadow, Predator and one of the newest reported on last month at the Paris Air Show, Nightwarden.

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Watchkeeper is another rather banal three-syllaballed naming effort from those with no imagination.

Watchkeeper

British Army Watchkeeper

Let’s not forget the Guardian series either which between sea and sky looks to watch over as many domains as it sensorial fingers will allow. The UK meanwhile seems to have taken a decision to lean away from killer-drone PR and named the successor to its MQ-9 Reapers, inspirationally, as Protector.

Then you have the Triton which in a doff of the cap to ancient antiquity refers to the son of Poseidon (the mythical sea-God, not the MPA) as a messenger of the sea. Quite apt. The UK’s Taranis demonstrator aircraft also riffs off the deitic theme.

 

We can conclude this missive with the Net Ray. No, me either.

Net Ray

AR3 Net Ray

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.

Killer bots or battlefield helpers?

The field of robotics is changing the way we live, revolutionising everything from industrial processes, driving and even cleaning our houses. Increasingly sophisticated technology and the advantages of using robots, including cost-savings and safety, has seen a boom in robotic technology in recent years.

Unsurprisingly, the military has also taken an interest in robotics. Like the autonomous ‘driverless car’ revolution currently taking place in the commercial world, the military is also looking at how unmanned vehicles can re-shape operations and how humans conduct warfare.

Of course the use of unmanned systems in the air is now well-established but the full utilisation of ‘drones’ in other domains – including ground robots for missions such as load-carrying or surveillance – is still some years off. That’s not to say academia and industry have not been investing in militarised ground robots, they have, but the world’s armies haven’t fully bought into the concept apart from use in very specialist roles.

So far, at least.

THEMIS armed

Estonian company Milrem has made significant strides in the UGV space (Photo: author)

That might be changing, as I set out in a recent in-depth analysis looking at industry’s efforts to develop and manufacture UGVsPresumably responding to emerging requirements from several armed forces it appears that industry is now stepping-up efforts in developing various types of ground robot, including those that integrate a weapon system.

The justification for weaponising a UGV, much like the reasoning for robotics in other sectors, is increasing safety and significantly increasing capabilities at a much lower cost. Companies in the US, Germany, Estonia and Ukraine have all funded projects that look at enhancing the firepower of a ground robot.

But fielding a weaponised system – such as missiles or machine guns – will once again raise concerns about a ‘Terminator’ scenario involving killer robots and the possibility that UGVs could autonomously kill other humans on the battlefield.

Ukrainian Fantom

Ukrainian company Spets Techno Export has developed an armed UGV concept (Photo: author)

That’s unlikely however mainly because the weapons are operated by a human via a control station, similar to how remote weapon stations on vehicles are currently used. There is also the strong belief, among western companies and militaries at least, that a human must always remain ‘in-the-loop’ when it comes to weapon engagements whether that is on a manned or unmanned platform.

Don’t expect that to change anytime soon, unless the operational scenario or mission truly requires it.

Whether you are for or against the armed UGV concept the fact is that you can expect to see much more of the technology in the next few years. How much the militaries of the world will embrace the nascent technology is still guesswork, but if recent exhibitions are anything to go by, then we’ll likely see more companies look to enter this market in the near future.

The Year Ahead

Global politics will dictate the forthcoming year for the defence industry. This is heightened by new leaders taking office, as well as presidential elections throughout the world including those in Rwanda, Singapore, Germany, France and Iran.

Furthermore, on-going conflicts in Syria and recent terrorist attacks are sure to dominate the headlines.

Will changes in leadership bring a new set of procurement objectives for Western militaries in particular? Will defence budgets be less constrained? Time will tell.

Regardless of your politics, the world watches with bated breath as Donald Trump takes the helm on 20 January as the 45th president of the US.

It will be interesting to see if the commander-in-chief’s candour continues through his Twitter explosions of honesty.

He most recently lambasted the pricing of the F-35 and not forgetting his comments on Boeing and the cost of Air Force One. There’s bound to be a lot of anxiety amongst aerospace and defence companies stateside as Trump uses his second amendment right to an extreme.

donald-trump-tweet

The show must go on and here at Shephard we have been looking at some of the key programmes across land, sea and air worldwide that we expect to hear about over the next 12 months.

Americas

Over in the US, BAE Systems is set to deliver its M88A2 recovery vehicles to the army this is expected from November this year.

The M1 and Bradley vehicles are scheduled to get the 3GEN FLIR night vision system. A preliminary design review was due at the end of 2016 and it is not clear if this has happened although a critical design review is scheduled for spring 2017.

Staying in North America, Canada is due to take delivery of all 500 TAPV vehicles from Textron by the end of the year with a schedule of 30 vehicles per month. Deliveries started in August last year.

Brazil is due to take delivery of 23 AAV7A1 amphibious vehicles from BAE Systems in February and this will continue until the end of the year.

Asia-Pacific

China’s military strength is likely to remain a dominant media fixture this year. This was recently heightened by the People’s Liberation Army Navy aggressive taking of an unmanned underwater vessel of the US Navy just 50nm off the coast of the Philippines. It was returned five days later.

India is attempting to build an indigenous capability with the Rustom II MALE UAV that first flew last year. The platform is likely to carry out more flight testing in 2017, although the delayed programme has not inspired confidence in the navy, which has requested navalised MQ-9 Predators from the US.

The evolution of the combat RPA

Australia is worth keeping an eye on with its ambitious naval renewal programmes for new ships of the line and a fleet of new-build OPVs.

Another country motivated by China’s aggressive actions is Japan who recently enhanced its Self-Defence Force with a 1.4% funding boost for the FY to $43.66 billion. A budgetary increase also influenced by the nuclear testing undertaken by North Korea.

Europe

Contracts for the assessment phase of the Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme to the two remaining contractors, BAE and Rheinmetall were awarded in December 2016 and this year they will submit options to the British Army and we will find out what budget it has and the number of tanks it can keep.

87d5c52c

Across Europe countries are beginning to move to what could one day make up the core of a European naval defence force, as cash strapped navies share assets, training and personnel in a bid to maintain some of their capabilities. Plans to create a European Coast Guard service also received backing by MEPs in 2016.

As dozens of helicopters were subsequently reassigned, to both find work for idle machines and to fill the gaps created by the H225 grounding, several owners of the Super Puma launched legal action against Airbus.

ah-h225

The big helicopter story of 2017 is likely to be the future of the aircraft, and its return to widespread service and whether the company is able to restore confidence in the type.

Whoever is in power, in control of the purchasing and/or the product developer, Shephard  will be reporting on the deals and orders. We will see you on the show floor – starting with IDEX 2017.