Raytheon wants to be the Microsoft of unmanned military aircraft

Small Tactical Munition loaded onto Cobra UAS

Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems is developing a sort of operating system for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to allow rapid adaptation of new features such as weapons and sensors.

Raytheon’s Service-Oriented Architecture, or SOA – which the company highlighted during a recent UAS trade show – is roughly analogous to a computer operating system.

The SOA system would be compatible with “domain managers” – analogous to computer applications – that control weapons, sensors, communications and other vital mission-level functions.

The SOA is being tested at a Raytheon lab in Tucson, where the company plans to demonstrate the technology this fall. Raytheon is planning for a test flight sometime next spring.

Establishing the SOA as a common operating system across different unmanned systems would essentially allow “plug-and-play” installation of new equipment, Raytheon says.

While that may not sound like a big deal, the use of a standardized operating system on drones would amount to an about-face for the Pentagon.

The U.S. military relies on drone makers to update proprietary system software, said Mike High, Raytheon program manager for SOA and a retired F-16 fighter pilot.

“The major platforms are designed and built, maintained and upgraded by just one platform provider,” High said. “It’s just very expensive, because the government always has to go back to them.”

An aerospace and defense analyst said opening up UAS system architectures has been under discussion for several years, but it’s not an easy task.

“What you’re doing is, you’re taking decades of acquisition procedures and you’re really trying to turn it on a dime, and that’s hard to do,” said Ron Stearns, research director for G2 Solutions, a market-research firm based in Kirkland, Wash.

Like hardware and software developed for Microsoft’s Windows computer operating system, Raytheon’s architecture would allow other companies to easily build in new “services” – capabilities such as sensors, radars, weapons and radios, High said.

“If you buy a Windows computer, you can choose whatever monitor you want, whatever printer you want, from hundreds,” he said.

With Raytheon’s SOA, the government would essentially own the interfaces and provide open access to developers of software and hardware.

High said that with its SOA, Raytheon is targeting two future unmanned systems – the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system (UCLASS) and the Medium-Range Maritime Unmanned Aerial System (MRMUAS), both in early development. The fixed-wing UCLASS will be the Navy’s first carrier-launched unmanned aircraft, while the MRMUAS is a joint Army-Navy rotorcraft program.

Raytheon’s system is also adaptable to existing unmanned systems, including smaller aircraft, High said.

The U.S. military currently uses eight large- to medium-sized unmanned aircraft, such as the Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper, for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike missions, plus a number of smaller short-range craft.

The Pentagon plans to spend about $37 billion on unmanned aircraft systems over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office said in a recent report.

With the defense budget facing major cuts, the timing is right for systems that can save money in the long run, High said.

“It’s a great time for this because it makes sense … we can’t keep overspending on programs,” he said.

Stearns said the biggest benefit of an open system architecture would be the flexibility it would afford the military.

“The primary benefit is to expand the envelope of mission sets that existing systems can perform, and perform quickly, in theater with a minimum of configuration changes,” Stearns said, noting that now it can take up to 18 months to add a capability to a major UAS.

But Raytheon’s SOA is more likely to be built into future systems rather than being adapted to existing ones, he said.

“This next wave of procurement for these systems, I think, will be where the rubber really meets the road for more open, scalable architectures, from the ground station all the way to the airframe,” Stearns said