Un­manned and Ready

Un­manned ve­hi­cles have al­ready proven their use in the

India Strategic - - CONTENTS - By Chris­tian Do­herty

THE NAME Scott Swan­son may not be well known to many peo­ple, but he has a notable place in his­tory. Back in 2001, just weeks af­ter the at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, Swan­son – then a pi­lot in the US Air Force – found him­self part of the top se­cret Preda­tor mis­sion team, pi­lot­ing a drone over Kan­da­har some 6,900 miles away. Swan­son’s tar­get was a pickup truck parked out­side a com­pound thought to be hid­ing Mul­lah Omar, the supreme com­man­der of the Tal­iban. The mis­sile missed Omar, but Swan­son’s place in his­tory was con­firmed: it was the first time a US drone had fired a weapon in com­bat.

In the 15 years since, drones – or un­manned ve­hi­cles (UVs) as they are known – have grad­u­ated from bleed­ing edge mil­i­tary hard­ware to the shelves of elec­tronic stores across the world. You can now buy a ba­sic drone for civil­ian use in many coun­tries for around $99, while the use of un­manned ve­hi­cles con­tin­ues to grow in the mil­i­tary. Be­tween 2010 and 2014, the US Air Force trained more UAV pi­lots than F-16 pi­lots.

For Thomas Rey­del­let, strate­gic stud­ies and prospec­tive direc­tor at Thales, these ve­hi­cles are now cen­tral not only to mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions across the world, but also to a grow­ing num­ber of civil uses. Minia­tur­i­sa­tion of sen­sors, as well as

ma­jor ad­vances in soft­ware and hard­ware has al­lowed UVs to de­velop into far more than re­mote con­trolled fly­ing ob­jects. How­ever, for this progress to con­tinue, fu­ture UVs need to be more au­ton­o­mous, ag­ile, mo­bile and in­ter­con­nected with other as­sets and plat­forms, in or­der to take their place in the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tional loop and live up to their po­ten­tial.

“They need longer en­durance if they’re go­ing to be used in the field in the long term,” Rey­del­let ex­plains. “They need to be rugged and dis­creet, with ro­bust com­mu­ni­ca­tion ca­pac­i­ties to con­nect with other mil­i­tary as­sets,” he ex­plains. “To con­tinue to be ac­cepted by mil­i­tary forces, they need to de­liver a mea­sur­able op­er­a­tional ben­e­fit com­pared with the use of tra­di­tional sys­tems alone.

“Con­versely, un­manned sys­tems have a huge num­ber of po­ten­tial mis­sions – de­liv­er­ing weapons/com­bat, re­con­nais­sance, lo­gis­tics, sur­veil­lance, tar­get­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­lay, etc – but tech­nol­ogy, from ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to al­go­rithms, is still an ob­sta­cle to achiev­ing the per­for­mance lev­els re­quired. Progress is be­ing made and you can eas­ily imag­ine teams of UVs work­ing in tan­dem – and some man­u­fac­tur­ers and en­gi­neers are al­ready work­ing on it.”

No lim­its

While mil­i­tary plan­ners are work­ing on in­te­grat­ing a greater range of so­phis­ti­cated UVs into their sys­tems, civil au­thor­i­ties are in­creas­ingly wak­ing up to the pos­si­bil­i­ties that UVs can pro­vide. This in­clude ev­ery­thing from de­liv­er­ing medicines to mon­i­tor­ing weather, pro­vid­ing traf­fic up­dates and sur­vey­ing dis­as­ter zones, to clear­ing mines, mon­i­tor­ing ship­ping lanes or mon­i­tor crowds for any crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity.

And it’s not only fly­ing UVs: un­manned sur­face ve­hi­cles (USVs), ground ve­hi­cles (UGVs) and un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cles (UUVs) are all de­vel­op­ing at a rapid rate both within the mil­i­tary and be­yond. “For ex­am­ple, last Jan­uary, armed Rus­sian UGV units were op­er­at­ing in Syria,” says Rey­del­let. And as the tech­nol­ogy evolves, the mar­ket­ing po­ten­tial is also grow­ing: the global mil­i­tary UGV mar­ket gen­er­ated rev­enues of $412.5 mil­lion in 2015, in­clud­ing ex­plo­sive ord­nance dis­posal; in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance; lo­gis­tics and sup­ply; and bor­der pa­trol.

Rob Hooper and his col­leagues Ja­son Dey and Matt Hart at Thales have been work­ing on the de­vel­op­ment of au­ton­o­mous mar­itime sys­tems for sev­eral years.

Thales was suc­cess­ful in win­ning the joint UK-France co­op­er­a­tion pro­gramme called Mar­itime Mine Counter Mea­sures (MMCM), the aim of which is to de­velop the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of a com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent un­manned au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles to de­feat the threat of sea mines.

“This en­com­passes USVs and UUVs, con­trolled re­motely from an oper­a­tion cen­tre,” says Hooper. Work on MMCM has gath­ered pace in the past two years, largely in re­sponse to the growth of the mine coun­ter­mea­sures (MCM) mar­ket across the world, where clients are seek­ing safe and ef­fi­cient modes of op­er­at­ing re­motely to re­move mines from a va­ri­ety of very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, in a re­li­able, cost-ef­fec­tive man­ner. “We’ve built the Hal­cyon USV com­po­nent of the sys­tem, and we have been op­er­at­ing it for the last two years,” Hooper says. “And in the process we have demon­strated, pro­gres­sively, through a num­ber of tri­als, in­creas­ing au­ton­omy in terms of the oper­a­tion of the Hal­cyon.”

Dey says in­creased au­ton­omy will be a fun­da­men­tal fea­ture of the next wave of USVs: “The in­creas­ing level of en­vi­ron­men­tal sens­ing feeds into how it can de­ter­mine and process its sit­u­a­tional aware­ness, more ob­jec­tively and ac­cu­rately, in or­der to be able to make de­ci­sions au­tonomously.”

Achiev­ing that has in­volved work­ing on the range of ve­hi­cles, as well as de­vel­op­ing the right op­er­at­ing plat­form. Built-in au­ton­omy re­quires more so­phis­ti­cated sen­sor tech­nol­ogy; on Ha­ly­con, sen­sors range from the ob­vi­ous – radar, cam­eras, mi­cro­phones, etc – to the more ad­vanced, such as elec­tro-op­tic cam­eras with tar­get track­ing, sonar and LI­DAR, which mea­sures dis­tance by il­lu­mi­nat­ing a tar­get with a laser and analysing the re­flected light. These sen­sors equip the ve­hi­cle with far greater sen­tience and the abil­ity to un­der­stand and adapt to its en­vi­ron­ment. “Once you get to a po­si­tion where that’s de­fined, you can go even fur­ther and start look­ing at some sort of heuris­tic ca­pa­bil­ity, so that it’s al­most think­ing for it­self,” Dey ex­plains.

But he also points out that the more the sys­tem moves in that di­rec­tion, a par­al­lel chal­lenge emerges: “The ve­hi­cle still has to be­have in a co­or­di­nated way and it has to be safe to use, so when we talk about in­creas­ing lev­els of au­ton­omy, it then be­comes a ques­tion of how much we can al­low the ve­hi­cle to make those de­ci­sions re­li­ably on its own, and how much con­trol to re­tain.”

It’s a ques­tion that Barry Trim­mer and his col­leagues have spent the past three years puz­zling over as part of Project CLAIRE, a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort be­tween Thales, the UK’s Min­istry of De­fence (MOD) and Na­tional Air Traf­fic Sys­tems (NATS).

“Project CLAIRE was about demon­strat­ing that you could get a UV into un­seg­re­gated airspace – which is airspace shared with com­mer­cial traf­fic,” Trim­mer ex­plains. “Dur­ing the first flight, we moved to shared airspace – the same airspace as air­lin­ers – un­der con­trol of air traf­fic con­trol, which was a real first.”

Trim­mer says the next leap for­ward will be the safe use of “sense-and-avoid” tech­nol­ogy, in­stalled to al­low a ve­hi­cle to safely nav­i­gate in the event that a data link is lost. “If the link fails, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to hit the ground at some point,” Trim­mer says. “You’re go­ing to go through what they call ‘Class G airspace’, with no con­nec­tion to the ground sta­tion. In that sce­nario, the ve­hi­cle has to make its own de­ci­sions.”

Thales has in­vested in two sense- and- avoid tech­nolo­gies un­der Euro­pean ini­tia­tives. One uses op­ti­cal sen­sors to repli­cate vis­ual flight rules and the other en­vis­ages a radar sen­sor to sense-and-avoid in low vis­i­bil­ity con­di­tions.

The suc­cess­ful de­ploy­ment of sense- and- avoid tech­nol­ogy rep­re­sents a gen­uine sea change, and would open up the po­ten­tial of UVs to a far greater range of uses. “Sense-and-avoid is the tech­nol­ogy you need if you’re go­ing to de­ploy any civil UV for any pur­pose at all. That in­cludes civil sur­veil­lance or dis­as­ter re­sponse or any of those things,” Trim­mer ex­plains.

Sense-and-avoid in­volves the kind of au­to­ma­tion al­ready seen in the “rules of the air” fol­lowed by any au­to­mated flight sys­tem. This is def­i­nitely cred­i­ble in the short-term. The tech­nol­ogy – the UV’s “brain” – op­er­ates as a failsafe in the event of mal­func­tion. “For ex­am­ple, if we lost an en­gine, that would lead to the UV break­ing out of con­trolled airspace,” says Trim­mer. “UVs are ex­pected to be safe in the event the data link is lost so that’s an­other re­ally im­por­tant, ba­sic fea­ture of UAV de­sign – to be safe if the UV loses its con­trol link.”

In this case, break­ing through into un­con­trolled airspace “safely” means that the UAV will see what’s around and will take ac­tion to avoid any­thing

nearby, with­out any in­ter­ven­tion. This is the key­stone of the next phase of UV de­vel­op­ment, which will see these ve­hi­cles trans­form from un­think­ing sur­veil­lance and at­tack de­vices fol­low­ing au­to­mated sense-and-avoid pro­to­cols into “sen­tient” ve­hi­cles, with much more au­ton­omy than cur­rent mod­els. Rey­del­let, how­ever, sounds a note of cau­tion, es­pe­cially in ref­er­ence to UVs.

“To work along­side hu­mans, mil­i­tary ro­bots and un­manned sys­tems will need to dis­play a num­ber of hu­man traits, such as in­tel­li­gence, mo­bil­ity and dis­cre­tion,” he says. “They will need to pro­vide mea­sur­able op­er­a­tional ben­e­fits and re­main un­der the di­rect con­trol of their hu­man han­dlers at all times.”

Clearly, the pos­si­bil­i­ties for UVs to sense and learn from their en­vi­ron­ment are enor­mous. How­ever, Rey­del­let be­lieves that while the cur­rent sen­sor tech­nol­ogy has only just be­gun to show what UVs can do, we’re still a long way from fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. “As the sen­sors in UVs be­come smarter, com­pu­ta­tion loads will need to in­crease, in or­der to achieve au­ton­omy for a fully un­manned oper­a­tion,” he says. “But no suit­able on­board pro­cess­ing so­lu­tion cur­rently ex­ists.” In essence, the ma­jor­ity of the UVs “brain” will re­main in the re­mote con­trol sta­tion for the time be­ing.

The big chal­lenge for those work­ing on UAVs now is to bal­ance au­ton­omy with com­put­ing ef­fi­ciency – grap­pling with the size, weight and power re­stric­tions that cur­rently pre­vail when build­ing a UV for both civil and mil­i­tary use.

The next fron­tier is clearly vis­i­ble, how­ever – build­ing UVs that fit com­fort­ably into wider sys­tems. Whether that means a sur­veil­lance drone cap­tur­ing and analysing in­tel­li­gence on the wing or a USV di­rect­ing other nearby ve­hi­cles through mined wa­ters, the brains of these ve­hi­cles are de­vel­op­ing at an as­ton­ish­ing rate.

(Photo: Richard Sey­mour, Thales UK)


Thales Group and Au­ton­o­mous

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