By KARI HAWKINS
All unmanned aircraft systems were a go – although simulated – for Lt. Gen. Peter Vangjel when he visited the Joint Integration Systems Laboratory during his time at Redstone Arsenal on Aug. 5.
The three-star inspector general, whose routine duties are focused on identifying and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse within the Army, spent time on the positive side of Army research and development during a tour that showed him the capabilities of both Gray Eagle and Shadow unmanned aircraft systems in a simulated environment.
And hopefully the tour will lead to Vangjel advocating for more funding so that the capability envelop for the unmanned aircraft systems can be pushed even further into the areas of manned-unmanned teaming, systems interoperability, air-ground integration and payload expansion.
“This is a good news story of innovative teamwork between Program Executive Officer for Aviation and the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center,” Rich Kretzschmar, deputy project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Program Executive Office for Aviation, told Vangjel during an overview presentation of unmanned aircraft systems.
The research and development work being done in the AMRDEC Joint Integration Systems Laboratory supports the Gray Eagle and a wide variety of other Army UAS.
“These systems are being used very broadly across the force right now,” Kretzschmar said. “They have a variety of missions.”
Those missions include wide-area intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; convoy protection; Improvised Explosive Device detection and defeat; close air support; communications relay; and weapons delivery missions. Gray Eagle also carries weapons, expanding its role to lethal missions.
The Army’s UAS inventory includes the Gray Eagle, Sky Warrior Alpha, Block O, Shadow, Raven and Puma. The UAS family also includes the One System Remote Video Terminal and the Universal Ground Control Station.
While all the systems have been battle tested in the past 10 years, the UAS Project Office is focused now on expanding capabilities through manned-unmanned teaming between unmanned aircraft systems and helicopter pilots.
“Manned-unmanned teaming is in its infancy. We have defined interfaces and we are now bearing fruit operationally from the investment many years ago,” Kretzschmar said.
“UAS applications are really exploding because of the networking and interoperability of UAS.”
Vangjel, who secured the Raven system for use in Afghanistan as a commander, discussed with Kretzschmar and others at the briefing the need for information assurance so that the enemy can’t threaten operability or flight safety.
Without information assurance, the enemy will be able to “tap into our signal and derail what we’re trying to do,” Vangjel said.
In past funding cycles, Vangjel fears such information assurance has been sacrificed because the need wasn’t articulated or because the need was too expensive or too lengthy to address.
“It’s going to take policy makers to ask questions about what is good enough and what is doable,” Kretzschmar said.
“We have all our systems in the fight currently. We’ve flown over 2 million flight hours collectively with 90 percent of those hours have flown in combat. Our systems have grown up in the fight and they have grown up fast. Now we need to step back and apply the acquisition rigor and policy-based standards to ensure we are getting the most benefit from taxpayer dollars.”
Kretzschmar said another challenge facing UAS is that, as the systems come home with the troops, there will be more need to fly UAS in the national air space to maintain training requirements.
“This is our most challenging issue. To fly unfettered in national air space we incorporate sense and avoid technology,” he said.
Currently, Shadow is at home in 42 states and Gray Eagle will be in seven states when fielding is complete. Not only is there a need for national air space access for training, but also for such other government agency homeland missions as forest fire detection, border patrol and flooding surveillance. UAS could be effective in these missions, Kretzschmar said, if they were allowed to fly in the national air space.
He also said the acquisition policy on small UAS (Raven and Puma) needs to be revisited to explore opportunities to take advantage of fast-evolving technologies developed in the commercial sector.
“We want a refresh type of approval so that we can buy the latest and greatest technology for small UAS,” Kretzschmar told the three-star general.
“There needs to be a paradigm shift on how we acquire these systems, such as we do now with buying computers every three years to five years. Our small UAS don’t have to be as robust and we need to get the best out of the technology available.”
Following the briefing, Vangjel toured the Joint Systems Integration Lab, which is managed by AMRDEC’s Software Engineering Directorate. The UAS JSIL supports research, development and testing needs of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, PEO Aviation.