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31 Jan 19. Iran unveils new version of armed stealth UAV. Iran displayed what appeared to be a refined version of its stealthy armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) during the Eqtedar 40 defence exhibition that opened in Tehran on 30 January. Several UAVs apparently derived from the US RQ-170 reconnaissance UAV that crashed in Iran in December 2011 have previously been unveiled, including a copy called the Simorgh and simplified and supposedly armed versions called the Saegheh (also Romanised as Saeqeh). However, it was unclear how the latter were armed. One was displayed with four missiles attached to its underside – a configuration that would significantly increase its radar signature – and with no apparent targeting system. The Israeli military announced on 10 February 2018 that an Iranian RQ-170 derivative launched from Syria had been shot down after it entered Israeli airspace. It subsequently confirmed the UAV was “armed with explosives” but did not clarify whether these were carried in the form of launchable weapons or as an integral warhead. Labelled in Persian as a medium-range combat reconnaissance UAV and reportedly called the Saegheh-2, the version displayed at Eqtedar 40 had no apparent undercarriage, indicating that it is launched from a rail and probably uses a parachute to land. It had long, narrow doors on its underside that were open, indicating that it has an internal weapons bay. It also had a relatively small and seemingly non-retractable electro-optical system under its nose that might be capable of designating targets for laser-guided weapons. The Fars News Agency reported that the Saegheh-2 can carry four guided bombs and has been used against Sunni extremists in Syria. (Source: IHS Jane’s)
30 Jan 19. How long can drones work underwater? Maybe a year. What is left to map in the 21st century? Mostly underworlds, it turns out. One such underworld is the space beneath Antarctica’s Doston Ice Shelf, which a team of autonomous robots just spent a year mapping. While an entirely civilian and academic research mission, the project has valuable lessons about what long-term autonomous operations may look like.
In January 2018, a team of researchers from the University of Washington, Columbia University, the Korean Polar Research Institute, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation deployed seven robots to study the region. Three of these robots were Seagliders, an autonomous long-endurance platform built to collect readings below the surface. These Seagliders were guided by a trio of acoustic beacons placed on the ocean floor for the duration of the mission.
Besides the Seagliders, the researchers released four “Electro-Magnetic Autonomous Profiling Explorer” floaters, or EM-APEX, developed by the University of Washington. These sensors were lowered into the deeper warm current of dense saltwater and then dragged along under the ice for a period of several weeks before being expelled with the cool flow of water near the surface. Three of the EM-APEX floaters were expelled by eight weeks. One of the floaters stayed under for almost an entire year, reemerging only on January 5th, 2019.
The science of the expedition is fascinating and, again, its primary purpose. By examining the interaction between sea ice and ice shelves, the researchers hope to clarify some of the uncertainties in estimates of sea level rise as a result of the increase in global average temperature. While sea level rises have second- and third-order impacts for military planners, it’s the combined operation and long duration of the mission that’s of interest to us today.
Underwater is what can be seen as a naturally denied environment, with the difficulties of relaying commands through the sea and ice. Acoustic beacons are a partial solution, giving a set of fixed points around which robots can navigate. Autonomy is the rest of the solution: like submariners running silent, the robots followed orders to the best of their computing power, and lasted until it was time to return.
Not all the robots made it; one of the Seagliders is still presumed to be operating under the ice. While all the sensor-carrying floaters returned, passage under the ice could take anywhere between six weeks to nearly a year. Humans that will command and rely upon under robots in the future should expect some attrition in the machines they deploy. As the research and commercial worlds get more comfortable with the long deployment possibilities offered by autonomous systems, military planners should look, too, to what the presence of ambient and ambulatory robots can offer, especially in places where it is difficult for humans to go. (Source: C4ISR & Networks)
29 Jan 19. US Navy looks to ease into using unmanned robot ships. Large and medium-sized unmanned surface combatants under development by the U.S. Navy will likely have crews aboard, at least at first. As the force looks to integrate more unmanned surface vessels into its future fleet, the ships will likely have sailors aboard, at least in the near term while the Navy gets comfortable with new construct, said the Chief of Naval Operations N96 office’s surface warfare director, Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, in an interview with Defense News last month.
“I expect it won’t be immediately unmanned,” Boxall said. “We’re going to design these things with the idea that we’re going to put people on them in the near term. Then maybe move toward fully unmanned when we think the technology and the understanding of how we will use them matures.”
Boxall said the Navy will need to build trust in unmanned platforms with, for example, the Coast Guard, which is responsible for enforcing safe navigation rules in and around U.S. waters, but that the force needed to be ready for a future where unmanned surface vessels can serve as sensors and shooters in a distributed network of ships.
“We don’t want to wait for that future, we want to be ready when that gets here,” Boxall said.
The concept behind using unmanned ships is part of the “distributed maritime operations” construct the Navy is developing as it prepares to square off with near-peer competitors China and Russia.
In high-end fights, anything putting out an identifiable electronic signal, such as high-energy, anti-air radars, will be vulnerable to electronic intelligence and surveillance equipment. The Navy is looking to mitigate that risk using unmanned ships that can serve as sensors and shooters but also protect larger manned surface combatants.
In this construct, the humans on manned platforms such as the FFG(X) future frigate and the new large surface combatant would act as command and control — and perhaps be able to stay passive and allow their drones to do the sensing and shooting.
According to Naval Sea Systems Command, the service is working on several unmanned surface drones that can enable this kind of networked warfare. A NAVSEA presentation at the annual Surface Navy Association symposium put forward details on the unmanned surface systems on which it is working:
- A large unmanned surface vehicle, or USV, that can distribute large sensors and fires.
- Medium-sized USVs that can carry smaller sensors and perhaps electronic warfare equipment.
- Small USVs that can tow mine-hunting equipment, as well as work to relay communications to their human overlords on manned surface combatants.
- Even smaller USVs that can work as communications relays as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.
Developing unmanned surface vessels is a key part of an agreement with NATO alliessigned in July, according to a release from October.
“The use of unmanned systems is a potentially game changing leap forward in maritime technology,” the release read. “Working alongside traditional naval assets, these unmanned systems will increase both our situational awareness and our control of the seas.”
The more unmanned vessels the surface fleet can integrate, the less the Navy will depend on massive, multimission surface combatants bristling with sensors and weapons, Boxall said.
“It’s a shift in mindset that says: Instead of putting as much stuff on the ship for as much money as I have, you start thinking in a different way,” Boxall said. “You start saying: ‘How small can my platform be to get everything I need to be on it?’
“We want everything to be only as big as it needs to be. You make it smaller and more distributable, given all dollars being about equal. And when I look at the force, I think: ‘Where can we use unmanned so that I can push it to a smaller platform?’ ”
This is expected to be one of the things the Navy is looking to get out of its upcoming request for information from industry, currently being developed by Boxall’s N96 shop. It’s unclear when that RFI will be released.
In order to get to that future, NAVSEA is going to be chipping away at a few important areas, including:
- Safety, reliability and autonomous navigation.
- The ability to launch and recover offboard sensors such as mine-hunting drones from USVs.
- Integrating USVs with manned host platforms, which control the USVs from a distance.
The Navy has been chipping away at many of those areas with its Sea Hunter unmanned surface vessel developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“We’ve got Sea Hunter out there today, and we’ve done some incredible things with [it] in terms of its autonomy: teaching it how to get from point A to point B safely,” Boxall said. “We’re learning about reliability of engineering. We’re learning about how to interact with [Sea Hunter] in terms of different payloads — what should we put on those things? “We don’t think this should be very expensive, and we don’t think it should be hard to do.” (Source: Defense News)
28 Jan 19. NRL looks to modify Black Pearl experimental AUVs. The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is planning to modify and update its inventory of five Black Pearl autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to accommodate a series of new payloads. Originally developed by General Dynamics Mission Systems’ Bluefin Robotics business under a contract awarded in January 2014, the 21-inch Black Pearl AUV is a customised variant of the company’s Bluefin-21 vehicle. According to the NRL, the Black Pearl programme was established to support various strands of research, including long-range and multistatic mine-hunting and anti-submarine warfare programmes, and distributed sensing research. In a request for information (RFI) released on 22 January, the NRL disclosed its intention to introduce several changes to the five Black Pearl AUVs. (Source: IHS Jane’s)
28 Jan 19. New Photos Of Russia’s ‘Okhotnik’ UCAV Emerge. New images have just emerged on social media of Russia’s Okhotnik, or Hunter, unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). Officially dubbed URBK, or Udarno-Razvedyvatelnyi Bespilotnyi Kompleks in Russian, which translates to Strike-Reconnaissance Unmanned Complex, the aircraft has been in development for years in one form or another, with Russian aircraft design house Sukhoi leading-up the project.
The photo that appeared on Russia’s top social media site VK shows a flying wing UCAV on a frigid taxiway and looks to have been taken at a distance and between barren trees surrounding the airfield.
It dwarfs the relatively large snow plow tractor that is pulling it, leaving the impression that it is similar overall in size to a medium weight fighter, although shorter in length and significantly longer in wingspan. Its dimensions appear to be loosely analogous to Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, if not larger in terms of wingspan as it doesn’t appear to feature the X-47B’s ‘cranked kite’ planform. The X-47B was roughly 38 feet long with a 62 foot wingspan.
The aircraft is powered by a full-sized fighter jet engine that could potentially include afterburning capability based on the nozzle installation. This would be helpful for taking off at high gross weights, but beyond that, it would have questionable utility. The engine being used is unknown, but the Saturn AL-31F series used by the Flanker family of aircraft would be a logical choice. It is possible that a derivative of the more powerful AL-41F that is still somewhat in development could be used in the future, which may eliminate the need for an afterburner.
The engine type is not as important as the configuration of the rear of the aircraft. What we see here is downright crude by western low-observable UCAV standards. The engine exhaust section appears to be sunk into a trough that features classical ‘radar trap’ angles. Composite structures could help with reducing such a design’s radar signature from the rear aspect, but still, the design would be far from ideal.
The nozzle itself is about as bad as it gets when it comes to reducing the infrared and radar signatures of the aircraft. Even if a lower-observable serrated round nozzle were added, such as one similar in concept to what is found on the F-35, this would still be a major issue when it comes to providing broadband low-observability, instead of being mainly able to elude and/or reduce the effectiveness of enemy fire control radars.
When it comes to thermal signature, there really is no difference between this aircraft and a 4th generation fighter, especially in terms of line-of-sight directly at the exhaust from the entire rear hemisphere of the aircraft.
We have to also remember that this is a prototype. Maybe the final version will feature a redesign of this critical area. But we never saw that happen on Russia’s 5th generation fighter, the Su-57. As it sits now, some of the biggest potential advantages of a modern UCAV, broadband low observability and highly reduced infrared signature, have been forfeited in this particular configuration.
It’s also worth noting that for larger stealthy flying wing aircraft, designing an exhaust to successfully reduce radar and infrared signature while also retaining efficiency and keeping the aircraft in control throughout its flight and thrust envelope is very challenging. The B-2 went through years of teething to get its planar exhausts to work without major material issues and the design is still considered sensitive technology.
The X-47B never flew with its production representative exhaust. Instead, it used a less stealthy exhaust shroud during its testing career, which could have been refined on production aircraft. Still, this is nothing in comparison to the deficiencies seen on Sukhoi’s exhaust design.
Smaller stealthy flying wings that use lower thrust engines seem to have less of an issue in this department. Still, there is no attempt seen in Hunter’s current design that even points to a low observable change down the road. The air inlet’s position in relation to the engine’s fan face is also worth questioning when it comes to low observability. In the pictures, they appear as if they are fairly in line with one another, which would not be good for maintaining a stealthy signature from threat radars peering from the critical head-on aspect. We will have to wait and see if there is a serpentine duct or some sort of baffle and screen setup to help mitigate this issue. But a baffle is still not the same as serpentine duct when it comes to low-observable treatments. Considering what the rear looks like, it’s possible Sukhoi just went with a baffle system. Once again, this would be similar to what happened with the Su-57’s design.
The aerials and lumps on the aircraft will likely disappear after testing. But what’s worth mentioning is the odd configuration of the trailing edge flight controls and flaps considering it is being pulled by a tug. Also, the APU is running on the aircraft and the engine exhaust appears to be in an under power configuration. It’s possible that some sort of glitch or failure required the aircraft to be returned to a servicing area without being shut down, or it is being brought out while running for ground handling tests.
The aircraft’s landing gear looks similar to the one used on the Su-57, which would make sense as Hunter and the Su-57 are likely to share multiple systems and are envisioned to work alongside one another.
It is important to remember that Russia was able to examine the RQ-170 Sentinel that fell into Iranian hands. In fact, they likely led the effort to exploit every bit of technology and know-how they could from the Skunk Works-built stealthy flying wing. Do not underestimate how much of an impact this had on their ability to at least know where they needed to invest development dollars to make a similar system of their own a reality one day. (Source: UAS VISION/The Drive)
24 Jan 19. The Pentagon flew more drones for domestic missions in 2018 than the last 7 years combined. The Pentagon’s drones are an iconic symbol of war abroad, plane-sized matchsticks with wings lurking over cities and countrysides waiting for the moment routine patrol becomes un-routine. For the most part, the missions of those drones have remained abroad, but over the years the Department of Defense has flown drones a handful of times over the United States in support of civil authorities here. From 2011 to 2017, the Pentagon reports just 11 total domestic drone missions. But in 2018, that total doubled, with 11 domestic missions flown by military drones.
On Jan. 11, the Department of Defense published its 2018 statistics. The drones involved include everything from MQ-9 Reapers down to DJI Phantoms, and involvement in missions ranging from training exercises to border security and emergency response. (Notably, drones operations by the Department of Homeland Security are excluded from these statistics). These numbers are helpfully collected and contrasted with domestic drone use by the military from 2011 to 2017 by Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard University. In 2018, military MQ-9 Reapers flew five missions over the United States, four of which were in support of forest firefighting in California and Oregon. One Reaper mission, flown from May 7 to May 10, was described as incident and awareness exercise in the state of New York. RQ-11B Ravens flew two missions, one a base installation in Bangor, Kitsap, Washington, and the other was a Defense Support of Civil Authorities mission in response to Hurricane Florence and requested by the South Carolina National Guard.
In addition, DJI Phantoms flew two missions stateside for the military in 2018: installation support at Camp Pendelton and air show support on behalf of DoD public affairs at Cherry Point in North Carolina. An MQ-1C Gray Eagle was on call throughout 2018 in support of southern border security missions, and an RQ-21 Blackjack was requested by Customs and Border Patrol for counterdrug operations from November 2017 through to March 2018.
Those use cases roughly match up to how the Pentagon used drones at home between 2011-2017, with the exception that 2018 saw far more border monitoring. The Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA used DJI Phantoms and NOVA III drones for flooding-related missions in South Carolina in 2015. The Corps of Engineers additionally used those drones after flooding Mississippi in 2015-2016, and for Civil Works operations from 2016-2017.
While using military drones for border monitoring took on a prominence in 2018 that it lacked earlier this decade, it’s not entirely unprecedented. The Marine Corps deployed RQ-2 Pioneer drones on the border in 1990, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2002. These missions all feature drones used exclusively as surveillance platforms. The trend upwards in use suggests that we may see more drone flights carried out by the military in support of local authorities, especially along the border, in the years to come. (Source: C4ISR & Networks)
25 Jan 19. BAE Systems to support Protector integration into UK airspace. BAE Systems is to help integrate the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Protector RG1 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into UK-controlled airspace. The company announced on 24 January that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with GA-ASI to support integration of the UK version of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian (previously known as Certifiable Predator B) into national airspace, ahead of the type’s introduction into Royal Air Force (RAF) service in the mid-2020s. As noted in its announcement, BAE Systems will work to shape the regulatory environment so as to enable the sale and flexible operation of the UAV in regulated airspace. (Source: IHS Jane’s)
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