Boeing is working on a program to integrate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with manned aircraft, to enable the latter to control and direct them in the air and increase the scope of ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) sensory inputs.
“We’ve done demonstrations in the air where we controlled unmanned aircraft from our large ISR aircraft. And we’re trying to demonstrate that capability and learn what the benefits are, long term. But we’re doing it from an open perspective, because we recognize that our customers may already have unmanned aircraft in service, or they may have desire to buy other aircraft. SO the systems we put in place talk NATO standard command and control language. So open standards for talking to UAVs. And we see that as one of the big growth areas for the future of ISR. How the manned and the unmanned work together,” says Egan Greenstein, Senior Manager, AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning & Control) Program Business Development at Boeing’s Puget Sound facility.
According to him, two Scan Eagle UAVs participated in an exercise in Australia in May 2009, where they were controlled by 737 AEW&C Wedgetail aircraft over a distance of a thousand nautical miles and the integration between manned and unmanned systems managed to share sensory information successfully. This is to be demonstrated again in an exercise called Empire Challenge in September this year. According to a US government website, ‘Empire Challenge is an Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USD(I)) sponsored, US Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) executed joint/combined Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) interoperability demonstration. EC10 will focus on improving the ability of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan to effectively and efficiently manage, access and use ISR to improve command and control (C2), and enhancing information sharing and situational understanding to improve the effectiveness of operations while minimizing collateral damage in a complex environment’.
While so far, Boeing’s Apache combat helicopters have displayed the ability to control a single UAV, the company has multiplied the scope of the same system to enable larger aircraft like the family of 737 AEW&C Wedgetail and P8 to control multiple UAVs.
“If I’m a manned ISR airplane and I am out doing my mission, and I’ll use P8Is for my example, I’m really focused on the area around the airplane. I may be identifying ships or targets in my vicinity. But I can use a UAV to maintain surveillance over something suspicious continuously, even as I move to another area. So the information flows to the commanders in the airplane and I can make decisions and maintain – they’re complementary to the manned aircraft,” says Greenstein.
This systems integration for manned and unmanned aircraft is being developed at Boeing’s Puget Sound facility near Seattle. “On the surveillance aircraft side of things, what we’re doing is putting command and control software into our airplanes that can talk to not just the Boeing unmanned aircraft but any unmanned aircraft. Because we see unmanned as a separate part of ISR that makes us more effective. So there will always be a role for a manned aircraft and an unmanned, when they work together they’re much more effective,” he says.
Boeing also hopes to take this program to the next level by integrating systems to the extent where they can be launched from aircraft, but Greenstein says that capability is still at least a couple of years away. He says, “The (UAVs) ones that are on the market today are launched either from ship or from land. There is a shipboard version of Scan Eagle, launched from relatively small ships. We are doing research into the ability to air launch UAVs.” In such a scenario, UAVs could either be throw-away models where they’re simply crashed safely or their recovery could be managed by directing them to land in friendly territory.
Your correspondent is visiting the United States at the invitation of the Boeing Company.