Military

US Army to Industry: Help Us Team Drones With Helicopters

By Dan Parsons | May 22, 2018

In keeping with the U.S. Army’s new spirit of outreach to the industry, the service wants to know what the private sector can do to better team drones with manned aircraft.

The Army wants to know what’s out there in the way of products, science-and-technology research, operational concepts and mission support that could enhance existing manned-unmanned teaming concepts, according to a notice published May 17 on the government’s contracting website.

Manned-unmanned teaming, or MUM-T, has been a singular focus for the Army since it decided to retire the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter. Instead of developing and fielding a clean-sheet replacement, service leaders decided the AH-64 Apache teamed with RQ-7 Shadow drones could perform the armed scout mission.

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Two U.S. Army AH-64E Apache helicopters assigned to 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division fly overhead during a combined arms live-fire exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., April 5. The CALFEX brought together aircraft from 16th CAB and Strykers and Soldiers from 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division to exercise coordinated attacks.

Two U.S. Army AH-64E Apache helicopters assigned to 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division fly overhead during a combined arms live-fire exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, April 5. The CALFEX brought together aircraft from 16th CAB and Strykers and Soldiers from 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division to exercise coordinated attacks. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

The solicitation also includes technologies that will further efforts to team ground vehicles with robots, as the Army envisions a future where none of its manned aircraft enter combat before a robotic or autonomous wingman. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has repeatedly said that robotics, autonomous systems and the artificial intelligence that will operate them will cause a epochal change in the character of warfare.

The Army-led Future Vertical Lift (FVL) development program is seeking a next-generation rotorcraft with baked-in MUM-T capability.

Now the Army Science Board is conducting a study on MUM-T to develop insights into critical capability needs, concepts of operations and to further understand the technical, operational and human challenges of seamlessly linking unmanned and manned aircraft.

“MUM-T concepts of interest include those that operate in the ground, air, cyber, electronic warfare (EW) and/or multiple domains,” the solicitation reads. “The MUM-T study team has been asked to postulate and characterize ground and air MUM-T concepts that offer potential solutions to difficult Army warfighting challenges.”

L3 Technologies already is operating under a $97 million contract awarded in December to bolster the teaming of Apaches with the Shadow and General Atomics’ MQ-1C Gray Eagle, which can expand the manned-platform’s information-gathering capabilities on reconnaissance missions. The aircraft are working toward a level of interoperability (LOI) of 5, which means the manned aircraft has full control of the aircraft from takeoff to landing.

Airbus Helicopters demonstrated that level of teaming in April when it successfully completed tests with its H145M helicopter and Austrian defense company Schiebels S-100 unmanned aircraft system (UAS). The tests between the H145 and S-100 UAS is the first MUM-T test for European helicopters to demonstrate LOI 5.

Having demonstrated that LOI 5 teaming is feasible, the Army now wants to enhance what helicopters and drones together can do and iron out security and software issues. It is asking industry for ideas to provide resilient communications between the aircraft in dense environments with a lot of electromagnetic interference, algorithms to improve movement over complex terrain, obstacle avoidance and target recognition.

The service also wants information on new sensors and sensor fusion technologies that can provide shared situational awareness between teamed aircraft. With all the information a single drone can gather, the Army also wants technologies than can reduce cognitive burden on human pilots and enable “dynamic reallocation of cognitive functions between human and RAS in response to changing operational conditions.”

No contracts are guaranteed for promising technologies, but the Army plans to “assess the adequacy” of its science and technology investments to meet its future MUM-T requirements.

Based on responses from the industry, the Army Science Board will “offer suggestions for improvement, recommend MUM-T system and system-of-systems architectural frameworks that will facilitate continuous improvement in cognitive functionality of the unmanned system and human-machine teaming synergies and propose time-phased schedules for experimentation, prototyping and development of the MUM-T concepts.”

Interested companies must submit a capabilities statement no longer than 10 pages by May 31.

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