Interconnectivity is Theme for UAV and UGV Tech Advances

Unmanned systems both air- and ground-based continue to depend on powerful processing technology. The latest trend is toward communications and network advances among systems.


It’s clear that both unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have evolved to become indispensable tools for today’s modern warfighter. Their technology trends have likewise following a parallel path. Both UAVs and UGV system designs are moving toward more autonomous capabilities and ever more sophisticated ISR collecting. All that requires increased embedded compute density. To keep pace, the embedded computing industry is responding with highly integrated, small form factor solutions serving the needs of UAVs and UGVs.

On UAV side, development in recent years has trended toward upgrades of existing UAV platforms and payloads while limiting development of new ones. Technology vendors have responded with new integrated box-level systems with the proper size, weight and power (SWaP) for UAV requirements. For medium and large UAVs, most system upgrades are aimed at either adding more payload functionality in the same space or at adding more separate payloads on the same platform. The consolidation of multiple systems into few boxes is impacting the radar, imaging processing and communications capabilities of next-gen UAVs.

For UGVs, system platforms have matured significantly since operations in Iraq and Afghanistan began. Over that period, the DoD has acquired and deployed thousands of UGVs and support equipment. The systems support a diverse range of duties, everything from suspected object identification and route clearance to locating and defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Over the last 12 months, a lot of the advances in both UGVs and UAVs has centered on communication between unmanned platforms and warfighters and between the systems themselves. This includes everything from sharing video data to adding radio functionality.

Radio Comms for UGVs

In an example along those lines, last summer Endeavor Robotics (formerly iRobot) and Persistent Systems teamed up to integrate the MPU5, a communication system, into Endeavor Robotics’ family of battle-proven ground robots (Figure 1). The integration of the Wave Relay network helps warfighters by significantly increasing the distance of unmanned ground operations and enabling operators to control or observe multiple robot assets through a common controller interface over the Wave Relay MANET.

Figure 1. The 310 SUGV from Endeavor Robotics is a man-portable robot intended for gathering data for situational awareness in critical conditions.

According to Endeavor Robotics, the first generation of tactical robots used limited range point-to-point radios constrained by frequency, transmit power and nominal mesh capabilities. Today both robot systems and radio technology have evolved to enable greater capabilities and more secure and expandable communications between single systems or networks of down range systems. With the integration of advanced radio solutions such as Persistent Systems’ Wave Relay MANET technology lets operators of Endeavor robots establish and relay communications between multiple robots. It also provides them personnel views of real-time video and telemetry feeds from all robots within the MANET.

Modular UGV Platform

In January QinetiQ North America (QNA) likewise forged a deal Persistent Systems to ingrate MANET radios into its TALON and Dragon Runner ground robots. The MANET relay radio can connect QNA’s ground robot family with a reliable, high throughput, and long range MANET communication system that is self-forming, self-healing, and scalable. QNA has begun accepting orders for MPU5-equipped Talon V systems.

When it comes to new UGV designs, among QinetiQ North America’s latest offerings is the Titan developed with partner Milrem and introduced at the 2016 Association of the United States Army (AUSA) show last fall. The UGV that combines Milrem’s THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System) with QinetiQ North America’s robotic control technology. THeMIS is the first fully modular hybrid unmanned ground vehicle made for military applications. QNA’s control technology includes the Tactical Robot Controller (TRC) and Robotic Appliqué Kit (RAK). According to QNA, this joint both meets and exceeds, the rigorous SMET program requirements. The multi-mission Titan can perform complex and hazardous tasks on the battlefield that are currently performed by soldiers.

Datalink Gear for Predator B

Shifting gears to UAV technology, communications and connectivity are also leading themes. Along those lines, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA‑ASI) last summer completed a successful demo of its Network Centric Communications Pod (NCCP) communicating via data link between UAV and U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) ground and air forces. The demo was performed during an exercise held at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC), Twentynine Palms, Calif.

The NCCP was integrated aboard a GA-ASI-owned Predator B Block 5 (Figure 2) and operated by a company-owned Block 30 Ground Control Station (GCS), NCCP provided Adaptive Networking Wideband Waveform (ANW2) retransmissions and Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) availability while simultaneously providing C-band Remote Operational Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) Full-motion Video (FMV) to advantaged users who possessed highly sophisticated connectivity and communications equipment, as well as disadvantaged users on the battlefield who were equipped with Kinetic Integrated Low-cost Software Integrated Tactical Combat Handheld (KILSWITCH) tablets.

Figure 2. The Network Centric Communications Pod (NCCP) is shown here was integrated aboard a GA-ASI-owned Predator B Block 5. It provides Adaptive Networking Wideband Waveform (ANW2) retransmissions.

During the demonstration, warfighters access enhanced situational awareness through the expansion of their ANW2 and TTNT networks. This greatly improved their ability to communicate and share information in a network that included both an airborne node and ground users. Predator B also provided live FMV to warfighters’ ROVER, and the NCCP demonstrated the ability to stream FMV via ANW2 to USMC KILSWITCH tablets. This data, along with imagery captured by GA-ASI’s Lynx Multi-Mode Radar, was transmitted to Camp Pendleton’s Battle Simulation Center and displayed on GA-ASI’s Claw 3 Integrated Sensor Payload Control and Analysis Software system, as well as GA-ASI’s System for Tactical Archival, Retrieval, and Exploitation (STARE) workstations.

Swarms of Gremlin UAVs

In another communications-related UAV developed, GA-ASI last month announced that DARPA has continued to contract the company for Phase 2 of the Gremlins program. The Gremlins program seeks to develop innovative technologies and systems enabling aircraft to launch volleys of low-cost, reusable Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and safely and reliably retrieve them in mid-air. Such systems, or “gremlins,” would be deployed with a mixture of mission payloads capable of generating a variety of effects in a distributed and coordinated manner, providing U.S. forces with improved operational flexibility at a lower cost than is possible with conventional platforms.

GA-ASI was awarded a contract for Phase 1 of the program in March 2016. While Phase 1 was conceptual in nature, Phase 2 aims to mature the design and perform in-flight risk reduction testing for the C-130-based recovery system. Activities will include Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for the aircraft and recovery system, ground testing to validate key technologies, and flight test to demonstrate safety and recovery system performance. The program is expected to culminate in an air launch and recovery demonstration in 2019. The Gremlin aircraft is one in a line of new Small UAS (SUAS) being developed by GA-ASI. The vehicle is capable of one-hour time-on-station at a range of 300 nautical miles while carrying a modular 60-pound payload.

MQ-4C Triton Achieves Milestone C

Moving up to Large UAV platforms, the U.S. Navy’s “new” MQ-4C Triton UAV last fall obtained positive Milestone C low-rate initial production approval. The decision marked the beginning of the production and deployment phase of the DoD acquisition process. The test team analyzed and validated sensor imagery and performance at different altitudes and ranges. The aircraft system’s ability to classify targets and disseminate critical data was also examined as part of the OA testing. Successful evaluation of Triton’s time on station confirmed that it will meet flight duration requirements. Triton also transferred full motion video to a P-8A Poseidon in flight, proving a key capability to significantly enhance its ability to detect, track, classify and identify maritime threats (Figure 3).

Figure 3. A MQ-4C Triton UAV test proved it can transfer full motion video to a P-8A Poseidon in flight, proving its enhanced ability to detect, track, classify and identify maritime threats.

For its part, the RQ-4 Global Hawk also made news last fall when Northrop Grumman successfully flew an Optical Bar Camera broad-area synoptic sensor on an RQ-4 Global Hawk. That marked the first time the legacy U.S. Air Force camera has been flown on a high altitude unmanned aircraft. The Optical Bar Camera has provided panoramic and unalterable imagery. Existing models of the U.S Air Force Global Hawk are capable of carrying an Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite (EISS), Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP) and Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP).

Avionics-Centric Box-Level Solution

The trend toward COTS box-level systems being integrated onto to UAVs isn’t new. The twist over the last few years is towards box-level systems with function-specific features tailored to airborne applications—like UAVs. Exemplifying this trend is Mercury’s Avionics ROCK-2A—a development platform for conduction-cooled boards used in the ROCK-2 series of pre-integrated processing subsystems (Figure 4). The development platform’s front-panel is populated with commercial connectors for easy accessibility from test and development benches. Both the hardware and software are identical across the ROCK-2 development (ROCK-2A) and rugged air-borne (ROCK-2B/C) platforms, enabling UAV system developers to migrate from one platform to the other without modification.

Figure 4. The Avionics ROCK-2A features interoperable processing, graphics and I/O building blocks to provide all the functions required for modern C4ISR and avionics applications.

The ROCK-2 series uses Mercury’s Avionics Series of interoperable processing, graphics and I/O building blocks to provide all the functions required for modern C4ISR and avionics applications. Avionics ROCK-2A includes a software package with all the development tools required to build an application right out of the box. The board support package integrates all the drivers required for VxWorks 653. Other operating systems, with Linux and VxWorks available soon. The system’s front-panel and underlying I/O board are designed for customization enabling application specific I/O interconnects to be quickly implemented. Interfaces are provided for ARINC 429 Tx/Rx for high and low speed; Dual redundant MIL-STD-1553; RS232/422/485 configurable serial channels; Fast Ethernet, Gbit Ethernet, USB, Discrete I/O along with digital and/or analog video inputs.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Poway, CA
(858) 312-2810

Endeavor Robotics
Chelmsford, MA
(978) 769-9333

Mercury Systems
Chelmsford, MA
(866) 627-6951

Northrop Grumman
Los Angeles, CA
(310) 553-6262

QinetiQ North America
Waltham, MA
(781) 684-4000