Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Look mommy, no hands!

July 2, 2011, will go down in military history as a day of great importance. The general public won't know it and the news did not get much coverage, but it is a massive step forwards for Unmanned Aerial technology: 
an F/A-18 Super Hornet from US Navy squadron VX-23, fitted with software developed from the experimental drone UCAS-D, has performed the first ever fully automated carrier landing in history.
This Hornet had a pilot on board as a safety precaution, but the system landed the plane wholly autonomously on the deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower in the western Atlantic Ocean. 

It marks a turning point in the history of UCAVs and drones, and represents another step forwards in their rise to prominence in all military scenarios and ops, after the other still-recent breakthrough, the first fully automated air-refueling in history, which after the first tests with a modified Learjet plane (in 2006 and 2007) was, again, accomplished turning a F18 into a drone which autonomously approached the tanker and executed its AAR. In June 2010, Northrop Grumman announced a $33.3 million DARPA contract to take the next step forward: UAV-to-UAV aerial refueling. The “KQ-X” program will use a pair of the company’s RQ-4 Global Hawk high altitude UAVs, modified to add a standard Navy hose-and-drogue system (it will be, effectively, a Buddy-Buddy refueling in flight, and probably "involve the UK" as the leading supplier of Buddy-Buddy pods and AAR technology and kit is Britain's Chobam company). The refueling will be completely automated and autonomous, and will take place at high altitude. Not only would this program mark the first UAV-to-UAV refueling, it would be the first time that Global Hawks or any other HALE UAV have even flown in formation. The test might take place already later this year. 

The moment the first automated arrested landing ever is succesful: 2 July 2011, USS Eisenhower.
Air Refueling, hands off. It is automated, baby.

The automated Barrier Arrested Landing on the aircraft carrier does not affect only the future of drones, though: it also has an enormous potential in changing the way Navy pilots land manned aircraft. Right now, carrier landings are very manual, and visual. All air traffic control instructions are by voice, and even a good portion of navigation data has to be read out over the air, while visual signals cement the final approach. The Landing is by far the most complex, dangerous and training-intensive part of CATOBAR carrier jet operations, and is the biggest source of cost, by requiring constant training for the crews. 
Automated, or mostly-automated landing systems installed on manned planes such as the incoming F35C might allow for massive savings in training and usage of airframes, lowering the costs of CATOBAR ops. 

Supporting a UAV, and possibly retrofitted manned fighters, in future operations, required some important ship modifications. Eisenhower’s Landing Signal Officer (LSO), who is charged with safe recovery of aircraft aboard the ship, uses voice commands and visual signals to communicate with a pilot on final approach with current, standard fleet aircraft operations. Since a UAS obviously cannot reliably respond to voice and visual signals, the LSO's equipment communicates directly with the aircraft through the digital network via a highly reliable interface. Similar digital communication capability has been integrated with the ship's primary flight control ("tower") and Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) facilities. 
The UAS operator’s equipment, installed in one of the carrier’s ready rooms, was the other key network node. Precision Global Positioning System (PGPS) capabilities with sub-1 meter accuracy were then added into the ship and the aircraft, to provide constant position awareness.

It is evident that such automated systems represent an addition in up-front acquisition cost of ship and aircraft, but this is very marginal compared to the savings achievable in the long term by means of reduced training needs. 
The impression is that a very important step has been moved, one with great promises for the future. In the coming years, even before a naval UCAS comes on line, such automated landing system could enter widespread, common use on the fleet aircrafts, relieving the pilots from most - if not all - the burden of arrested landings. 

An option that the UK would very likely be interested in, as it will, over the next ten years, deal with the challenge of regenerating CATOBAR Carrier operations skills. Which contains the true challenge: 
to keep enough RAF and RN pilots full-weather, carrier-operations qualified, at a low cost, and with low training burden. 

Meanwhile, let me express a wish too:  since in the next 12 months the common requirements for the Telemos anglo-french UAV are to be agreed and confirmed and communicated to industry, evaluate with care the possibility of going "Apache AH1 style", delivering a "joint" system that can operate from land and sea bases indifferently. 
The Apache is proving that it is a smart thing to do. The US Navy is also going with decision down that route. 

Let's try and avoid designing and building another "land only" system only to have a requirement for a "sea capable" drone doing mostly exactly the same thing popping up later on. 

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