The Age of Unmanned Systems

By Rear Admiral Mark Darrah, U.S. Navy

Speed, communications, navigation capability, a new armed-reconnaissance mission, ordnance fusing not aligned to jet-speed capability, cold-weather operations, and an intelligence capability not aligned to a new generation of warfighting all combined to challenge how we would operate in the jet age.

VF-51 turned its discoveries into lessons learned that ultimately led to significant improvements in future ships and air wings. and provided key observations relative to operations involving very different generations of capability.

Today is no different. What we saw in the 1950s during the revolutionary jet age reminds us of the current challenges we face as we enter another new era of naval aviation with the growing demand for unmanned systems. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

The U.S. military is operating UAS all over the world. Small tactical UAS like the Wasp, Puma, Raven, and ScanEagle are supporting combat operations across multiple theaters. A larger class of unmanned systems, the MQ-8B Fire Scout, is operating alongside the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter as a composite manned/unmanned detachment on board the deployed USS Freedom (LCS-1). Meanwhile, the Navy’s largest UAS, the MQ-4C Triton currently in development, will work in tandem with the P-8A Poseidon to generate never-before-seen levels of maritime awareness. And ultimately, we will deliver an unmanned system that will seamlessly integrate into carrier operations.

Now we need to consider how a new generation of warfighting systems will transform how we operate in the future.

Framing the Challenge

Our maritime forces are currently, and will continue to be in the immediate future, dealing with wide-ranging force application demands and threats. Examples of this demand include:

  • Providing over-match capabilities against complex, highly adaptable adversaries who are rapidly integrating advanced technologies into their weapon systems.
  • Conducting combat operations within a network-denied environment or compromised network due to cyber attacks.
  • Adapting our advanced weapon systems to deal with the innovative use of readily available legacy weapons and commercially available capabilities in an asymmetric manner by a well-organized insurgency.
  • Humanitarian operations within a devastated infrastructure.
  • Freedom-of-navigation operations in support of coalition partners.

These represent a wide-ranging demand that cannot be filled with systems all built to meet a specific threat. We must have a mix of capability, to include UAS, which is adaptable to the demands we will face across multiple environments and threats.

In the face of these broad challenges, the Navy released A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower as a guiding principle for evolving our maritime capability to address a rapidly changing world. This strategy establishes the new essential function—all-domain access—to ensure we organize, train, and equip our forces to assure access and freedom of action in any domain.

UAS must be fully integrated to enhance our ability to provide that all-domain access. These systems will increase battlespace awareness by providing persistent surveillance of wide areas of ocean, the littorals and close-in coastal regions, the carrier strike group, and Marine and special-operations forces personnel. Pushing into the future, we will integrate these aviation systems with unmanned systems operating on and beneath the surface of the world’s oceans.

Warfighting Capability

Many view UAS as a capability when in fact it should be viewed as a means of employing payloads to achieve particular capabilities. In simple terms, an unmanned aircraft is, quite frankly, a “truck”—simply a platform to host sensors and weapons.

These systems have unique characteristics that differentiate them from other delivery platforms, with the most obvious being persistence. The ability to maintain domain awareness, observe pattern of life, and continuously employ across the entire kill chain has been demonstrated repeatedly in today’s military employment of UAS.

A UAS can perform missions over an extended period of time and keep that system over a specific area where it can do surveillance around the clock. We are doing this today with the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D), now in its 68th month of what was intended to be a six-month deployment. BAMS-D covers more than 50 percent of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility, and has accumulated more than 15,000 hours of real-world operations providing direct, actionable intelligence to the warfighters.

A successor of BAMS-D, the MQ-4C Triton, will be able to fly missions at altitudes of over 10 miles for up to 24 hours and monitor 1 million square miles of ocean and littoral areas at a time. We would not be able to do that with a manned aircraft for a variety of reasons, mostly because of human-endurance factors. Now, we will be able to accumulate more hours because of the long endurance UAS will bring to operational missions.

Aside from persistence, other features of UAS include expendability, scalability, capacity, and affordability.

Expendability broadens the scope of operations to include environments where there is unacceptable risk to manned aircraft since UAS can be employed in operational environments without exposing aircrew and operators to danger.

Scalability allows for UAS to be designed to store and operate from platforms and units that cannot support manned aircraft operations. UAS are not constrained by the need to include space for the aircrew and life-supporting systems. The ability to scale these aircraft to small sizes creates transportability, stealth, and confined-access opportunities. The RQ-21A Blackjack, for example, does not require a runway for launch and recovery, making it possible to deploy a multi-intelligence-capable UAS with minimal footprint from ships. This makes it ideal for maritime awareness and amphibious operations such as a Marine Expeditionary Unit and ground mission in access-denied environments.

Capacity in today’s environment is limited by a number of factors to include human engagement. Like manned systems, most UAS today require one operator per aircraft and sensor. As autonomous features are introduced, there is expected to be a decrease in manpower and an increase in force-projection capability.

Affordability savings are realized primarily from reduced total ownership cost per operational flight hour. The key drivers to cost efficiencies are greater endurance, virtually no proficiency flight hours, and efficiencies of smaller unmanned systems.

One critical point is that all flight hours for UAS are operational. You don’t have to fly the actual UAV for training. Instead, everything can be done with other live assets or in a simulator, greatly reducing costs.

The unique characteristics of UAS will undoubtedly shape future applications, warfighting concepts, and force structure as these systems are developed, fielded, and fully integrated into the fleet.

Manned/Unmanned Integrated Operations

By design, our UAS will complement the capabilities of our manned aircraft. Composite detachments will take advantage of an unmanned aircraft’s long endurance, at the same time leveraging resources from manned squadrons to increase the level of surveillance while reducing the footprint of deployed naval personnel.

We are already doing this today with the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and the H-60 Seahawk. Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35 is the first unit to operate both platforms. This limits the crew size by allowing members to multi-task, giving them much greater flexibility to perform operational missions.

We will see this same manned/unmanned teaming concept with the Triton and P-8A Poseidon. Bringing the Triton into the Maritime Patrol Reconnaissance Force (MPRF) will provide a much broader capability than either system could provide independently.

Our transition to the MPRF as a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft demonstrates the Navy’s belief that unmanned systems enhance existing mission communities by extending their reach and persistence, while maintaining the flexibility and on-scene decision-making of manned aircraft.

Autonomous Behavior

Autonomous systems can sense their environment and adjust their actions based on what they sense. For instance, an autonomous launch-and-recovery system would take into account ship movement and winds and adjust the flight profile of the aircraft for a recovery.

There are various levels of autonomy (LOA) and human interaction within UAS. LOA are defined based on the type and degree of human interaction for the system to be able to perform a function; however, the degree to which an autonomous capability learns and changes is also an important factor. For example, the Sheridan’s scale of degrees of automation describes LOA as the following:

1) The computer offers no assistance; the human must do it all.

2) The computer offers a complete set of action alternatives, and

3) narrows the selection down to a few, or

4) suggests one, and

5) executes that suggestion if the human approves, or

6) allows the human a restricted time to veto before automatic execution, or

7) executes automatically, then necessarily informs the human, or

8) informs him after execution only if he asks, or

9) informs him after execution if it, the computer, decides to.

10) The computer decides everything and acts autonomously, ignoring the human. 1

One essential factor in determining the appropriate LOA is to understand the objective of incorporating autonomy in an unmanned vehicle.

Perhaps the most pressing need for autonomous functions in our UAS is to address a problem that comes from one of their primary strengths—persistence. For instance, the MQ-4C Triton is designed to provide persistent 24/7 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at least 80 percent of the time. The large amount of raw data the system will produce will require significant bandwidth to transmit to commanders. Incorporating sophisticated autonomous algorithms to turn this data into information on board the aircraft would simultaneously improve the system’s effectiveness, decrease its communication vulnerably, and reduce the number of humans required to deal with this amount of data.

Autonomous capabilities also will prove invaluable when we evolve from our current paradigm of one or more “operators” per vehicle to a system-of-systems approach in which a small number of people oversee multiple vehicles as mission managers and the vehicles manage themselves. This would allow us to achieve the much-sought-after effects of swarming behaviors in which a large number of relatively inexpensive systems can autonomously collaborate to overwhelm an adversary. This mission-manager concept will also permit us to exploit a collection of multi-domain unmanned systems in a manner that individual systems can’t effectively achieve.

Consider the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) mission for which the Navy is the lead service. Currently, an EOD team must be deployed to the location of a suspected improvised explosive device (IED). The team is exposed to possible enemy fire while transiting to and from the IED site and while on site. It typically employs an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) in line of sight tele-operation mode. However, if the system included a UAS, such as an MQ-8 Fire Scout, in conjunction with the EOD UGV, the IED could potentially be handled without any EOD personnel at the suspected site. The UAV could carry the UGV to the site, survey the area to determine the best location to put down the UGV so that it could transit to the IED, and provide the best path information to the UGV. The UAV would act as the communications relay between the UGV and the mission commander as well as provide surveillance of the mission area looking for possible ambush and awareness of civilians at risk. The mission would be managed seamlessly from a single control station, and tasks related to the vehicles would be managed by the on-board autonomous software. The UAV would retrieve the UGV upon rendering the IED site safe. The mission would be accomplished faster, more effectively, and without risk to EOD personnel.

Rapid Yet Cost-Effective Changes Are Vital

Despite the compelling reasons to employ more autonomous functionality on our unmanned systems, we are not providing these capabilities to our warfighters at a satisfactory rate. There are a variety of interrelated reasons for this slow progress that we must address.

By their very nature, autonomous capabilities are enabled by software. The proportion of software costs to our overall system costs continues to grow with the increasing complexity of the software itself. Examining commercial practices can point us to several approaches that can help us deal with this issue.

In a world where you can order a drone on for $200 and the largest manufacturer of drones is the China-based DJI, the Navy has no choice but to adapt to the rapid technology growth.

While trying to determine when these autonomous capabilities will become pervasive, it is worth considering what is going on in the automobile industry. Many people await the arrival of a driverless car, but they don’t realize that autonomous capabilities are already available today. This includes ubiquitous technology like GPS and ABS as well as recent developments such as lane-change detection, driver-alertness monitoring, front-crash-prevention systems, and automatic parallel-parking systems.

Autonomy will never be developed in one big bang. Instead, it will evolve in ever more complex ways from basic autonomous functional components. Although there will always be a requirement to integrate these components into a system, the components themselves will be supplied from a variety of sources. We must adopt practices that will allow us to make these changes rapidly and cost effectively, and leverage technology from the nontraditional defense-supplier community.

The typical model of defense acquisition is going to need to change for autonomous systems. We must have an open-architecture approach that enables us to rapidly integrate autonomous capability components on systems throughout their life cycle. Our tools will need to include modeling and simulation environments from basic to high fidelity. This must include flight-test platforms with open architectures that allow us to routinely use surrogate vehicles prior to integrated testing on the platform.

Going forward, missions are going to require greater intelligence and more information; without some type of autonomous capability, it will be difficult to conduct these operations. Our naval forces will need to continue incorporating these components in order to maintain our superiority.

The Unmanned Path Ahead

The biggest challenge for our fleet is keeping up with the rapid pace of modern warfare and execution kill chains. Modern warfare continues to be based on integration of information across the battlespace that is immediately converted to knowledge. Our sailors and Marines must base their actions on this knowledge. Without persistent, accurate, and timely data, our knowledge base is compromised. If they continue to rely on individual pieces of information from a single sensor, we will not be able to maintain our warfighting advantage.

Our goal is to get to a place where every individual on the ground uses UAS as organic assets and naval ships will employ one or more unmanned systems to get the full picture of the battlespace. Properly integrating UAS with existing sensors and manned platforms will provide that gap-filling capability the warfighter needs to capture adversary behavior to the maximum extent.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told a crowd at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Symposium in April: “Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas.”

We soon will have a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems, who will streamline unmanned efforts across all stakeholders and operators, as well as a new office for unmanned in N-9, the N-Code for Warfare Systems. These organizational changes, along with the ongoing efforts in the technical and acquisition communities, will ensure the Department of the Navy efficiently identifies and prioritizes capability gaps that can be mitigated through unmanned systems.

Working together with our resource sponsors, the warfighter, and the many agencies engaged in development and delivery of unmanned capability, we will ensure our naval forces are able to execute our strategy built on the principles of being “Forward, Engaged, Ready.”

1. Raju Parasuraman, Thomas B. Sheridan, and Christoper D. Wickens, “A Model for Types and Levels of Human Interaction with Automation,” .

Rear Admiral Darrah is the Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). He received his commission through the Aviation Officer Candidate Program and was designated a naval flight officer in 1983.



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