It’s Better to Share: Breaking Down UAV GCS Barriers
UAVs have played a crucial role in gathering intelligence in the US military’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are thousands of UAVs gathering and distributing valuable data on the enemy, but each system uses its own proprietary subsystem to control the air vehicle as well as receive and process the data. Yet commanders need access to information gathered by all types of UAVs that are flying missions in their area of operation.
Recognizing this shortcoming, the Pentagon began an effort in 2008 to break down the proprietary barriers between UAV systems and create a single GCS that will fly all types of drones.
This free-to-view DID Spotlight article examines the problem of proprietary UAV systems and efforts to break down barriers to sharing vital UAV-generated information.
Ground Control to Major Tom: The role of GCS
One major component of the data collection and dissemination process is the UAV GCS. The ground station receives the information collected by a UAV, processes that information, and reroutes it via a datalink to the appropriate end user. The station also controls where the UAV goes and what it looks at.
For example, the MQ-1 Predator UAV system comes in a package with 4 vehicles, 1 GCS, and a data link suite that consists of UHF and VHF radio relay links, a C-band line-of-sight data link, and Ku-band satellite data links. When the Predator drone is out of sight of the GCS, the operators use a satellite data link.
The Predator GCS is housed in a commercially available trailer. The trailer incorporates an integral uninterrupted power supply, environmental control system, pilot and payload operator (PPO) workstations, data exploitation, mission planning, communication (DEMPC) terminals, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) workstations. All imagery recording is located in the GCS, since the Predator has no onboard recording capability.
The PPO workstations provide primary control of the air vehicle and the sensor payload. The DEMPC workstations allow data exploitation, mission planning, mission and payload monitoring, and system management. SAR workstations control, monitor, and use SAR data.
External communications are via HF/UHF/VHF (voice/data), cellular/landline telephones, and hardwire connectivity with a satellite communication terminal. Other SATCOM systems may be used to link the GCS to an intelligence architecture.
Video signals received in the GCS are sent via satellite for worldwide intelligence distribution or directly to operational users via a commercial global broadcast system. Command users are able to task the payload operator for raw images or video on demand.
Come Together: The Pentagon’s UCS-WG
Unfortunately, the Predator GCS only controls 1 Predator at a time, and it can only control and process information from Predator vehicles. The RQ-4 Global Hawk GCS controls and processes information from Global Hawks. And other UAVs use their own proprietary GCS systems. But commanders in theater need access to information gathered by all types of UAVs that are flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. How can all that information be “fused”?
The Pentagon decided it had had enough with proprietary systems that don’t share. It launched an effort in 2008 to develop and demonstrate a common, open GCS architecture supporting everything from MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter to long-range Global Hawk. The intent is to end the packaging of UAVs and ground control systems by manufacturers as 1 proprietary system. The Pentagon wants GCSs to be able to control multiple types of UAVs and not be blocked by proprietary walls.
To carry out this initiative, the Pentagon set up a tri-service UAS control segment working group (UCS-WG) that is defining an open architecture for GCS systems. The Pentagon wants to enable commercial suppliers to compete for the entire GCS or individual software modules, allowing those with better tools for visualization, data archiving, auto-tracking or other applications to improve functionality of the ground segment.
The US Army Project Manager for UAS is leading the tri-service UCS-WG. According to an April 30/09 FedBizOpps notice:
“This working group is chartered to define a common, open, and scalable control segment architecture supporting all Group 2-5 DoD UAS. The control segment is any station or embedded software fully or partially controlling an unmanned aircraft vehicle or payload. UAS Groups 2-5 include all UAS above 20 pounds maximum gross takeoff weight. This architecture is intended to enable the warfighter to add capability, offer competitive options, encourage innovation and increase cost control.
The intent of the government is to define a standardized, government-owned, controlled, and managed modular open systems architecture applicable across Group 2-5 DoD UAS. This architecture may be implemented, in whole or in part, in Services individual projects according to specific requirements and objectives, but the UCS-WG is not involved with any specific implementation of this architecture. The charter of the UCS-WG is only to define a modular open systems architecture, in terms of documenting modules and interfaces to the degree necessary to achieve the business case objectives for cooperative development, competitive acquisition, and rapid integration.”
The notice stresses that the group was not chartered to develop a joint ground control station that all 3 services can use or to develop common hardware or software. Whatever the group comes up with must be implemented by the individual services. This most likely reflects the animosity over UAV control between the Army and the Air Force; neither service wants a solution imposed on them by the other.
Not content with just having a working group, the Pentagon procurement chief followed up with a Feb 11/09 directive to the services to develop an open-software architecture for the GCSs that control their various unmanned aircraft.
The Pentagon procurement chief told the Air Force, which flies Predators, to conduct a user assessment of the US Army’s MQ-1C SkyWarrior One System ground system’s ability to fly a standard Air Force Predator mission. He told those in charge of reviewing unmanned aircraft for the Pentagon’s budget request to examine ground station development and procurement related activities for all major unmanned programs.
Are You Going STANAG? NATO’s Standard
The Pentagon’s model for this effort is NATO STANAG 4586, which defines standards for UAV command-and-control (C2) interfaces.
NATO STANAGs establish processes, procedures, terms and conditions for common military or technical procedures or equipment between NATO member nations. They provide common operational and administrative procedures and logistics so 1 NATO member’s military can use the support and supplies of another member’s military.
STANAG 4586 sets out the specifications of a common ground station for UAVs used by NATO forces. Implementation of the agreement will allow information between different national UAVs to be collated and shared via common ground stations, which in turn will mean that NATO and national commanders will have far greater control over the use of UAVs in military operations.
The STANAG sets out 5 levels of interoperability:
- transfer of filtered UAV data to a third party;
- direct transfer of live UAV data via a ground station to a remote command system;
- control of the onboard systems by commanders in the command system;
- in-flight control by the command system; and
- full flight control by the command system, including takeoff and landing.
One is the Loneliest Number: AAI’s OneSystem
Another solution is an upgrade to US Army’s One System developed by Textron subsidiary AAI to control the RQ-7 Shadow TUAS (Tactical Unmanned Aerial System). It was also compatible with other UAVs, including the IAI/AAI RQ-2 Pioneer, AAI’s Aerosonde, the IAI/Northrop Grumman RQ-5 Hunter, Northrop Grumman’s RQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter UAV, and Bell Helicopter Textron’s Eagle Eye VTUAV (Vertical Takeoff Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) tilt-rotor.
Block 2 development of the One System expanded its compatibility to the General Atomics’ Predator-derived MQ-1C SkyWarrior UAV. The biggest Block 2 changes involved the Block 2 software, which now included compliance with NATO’s STANAG 4586 for standard UAV control system interfaces, and with the USA’s digital Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL).
With those changes, One System would be able to control any UAV that uses the TCDL as its communications link, or complies with NATO’s STANAG 4586 protocols. The other big shift in the Block 2 software was the explosion of information exchange requirements. This ballooned from Block 1’s 6-10 line of sight options to over 150 compatibility requirements, including beyond line of sight options like satellite communication.
The next steps for One System are two-fold.
One is the move toward a Universal Ground Control Station (UGCS) [pdf]. This Block 3 shelter includes the latest generation of hardware running Block 2 software on Red Hat and Montavista Linux. It can be mounted in mobile ground shelters, or installed on board ship. The number of information exchange requirements will exceed 300.
The UGCS controls and processes information simultaneously from multiple unmanned air, land and sea platforms, and across military branches and mission requirements. It is also able to store UAV data for up to 30 days.
The other shift involves the One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT). Because it is based on Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER), it can already receive information from a wide range of UAVs and sources, from Aerovironment’s hand-launched RQ-11 Raven mini-UAV to an F/A-18 Hornet equipped with a LITENING surveillance and targeting pod. OSRVT Block II, also known as BDRVT, will use the legacy Shadow datalink to create bi-directional links, and give OSRVT operators on the front lines control of the UAV’s sensor payload.
Red ROVER, Red ROVER: The ROVER Datalink
L-3’s ROVER is basically a laptop with antennas that receives video captured by a UAV that shows real-time, nearby dangers allowing ground troops to make quick decisions regarding air strikes.
Using GPS technology, ROVER shortens talk time describing targets and coordinating attacks, reducing it to seconds rather than minutes. Troops in the field can also receive video imagery from Predator aircraft, C-130s equipped with a Scathe View imaging system or fighters carrying Sniper targeting pods.
Lt. Col. Gregory E. Harbin, of the 609th Combat Operations Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, SC, told SpaceWar.com: “the ROVER is bringing a phenomenal capability to our people on the ground.”
Staff Sgt. Justin Cry, a Shaw Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC), has a job that’s an art form at the best of times. Describing features from the ground to a pilot looking down while flying at high speed is no easy task. According to a Dec 16/05 a
Both L-3 and Harris Corp. recently introduced hand-held version of ROVER. L-3’s ROVER V receiver ROVER 5 is a small, lightweight, and rugged Software Defined Radio which provides a digital capability for full motion video, situational awareness, targeting, Battle Damage Assessment (BDA), surveillance, convoy operations and other situations where eyes on target are required. ROVER 5 provides enhanced air/ground coordination which shortens talk-on-target for time-critical operations.
The handheld Harris ISR receiver, known as the RF-7800T, provides a portable ROVER for video captured by UAVs.
The handheld ISR Receiver operates in the L-frequency band (1.71 GHz to 1.81 GHz), and also supports both S-Band (2.2 GHz to 2.5 GHz) and C-Band (4.4 GHz to 5.8 GHz). The initial release provides NTSC FM video formatted data. The device feeds video to a local display and is sold with both monocle and tablet display options.
Industry has been jumping on the GCS interoperability bandwagon. In contrast to OneSystem and ROVER, however, which are operational, the next 2 efforts are developmental in nature.
Masters of the Universe: Raytheon’s Common Ground Control System (CGCS)
One solution being developed is Raytheon’s CGCS (formerly dubbed Universal Control System or UCS), which is based on commercial video gaming technology. This control system, which incorporates the STANAG 4586 standard, would enable UAV operators to control multiple types of UAVs, process, and send information to the appropriate end user from 1 console.
Mark Bigham of Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems described [PDF] the UCS this way:
“One of the things we used in the design of the UCS was game technology and what we were attracted to was, you can take a kid, he can go to Wal-mart, he can buy a game and in less than sixty seconds, he can plug that game into his computer and he could be up and playing the game. You know, how did they do that? What was the magic part of the technology or the engineering that went into that and allowed a kid to not have to take a three-month course and read a five hundred-page manual, and so what we focused on was the gaming technology. We studied the hand and the eye interfaces. We studied the types of techniques they used so these kids that are joining the service – that are no longer kids – to leverage that same technology, they wouldn’t have to learn a whole new technology to use our system…
It has a first person immersive graphics interface just like a game. It immerses the pilots or the operators in the system and helps them project their minds into the battle space. They actually feel like they are riding on the UAV.”
The CGCS would not only be able to control and process data from various UAV types, it is also designed to reduce the number of UAV accidents. Procedural errors, ground station design, lack of situational awareness and human factors are some of the issues that adversely impact UAV operations. These problems have led to multi-million dollar UAV crashes, failed missions and longer training cycles. Raytheon aims to reduce UAV crashes by offering both situation awareness and operational capabilities to improve operator performance.
CGCS is designed to be more configurable by operators, providing the option to stand or sit, in addition to offering the ability to control multiple functions. The system is also capable of controlling multiple dissimilar UAV systems simultaneously through software.
In 2010 Raytheon added a fridge-sized (the small office size) transit case version to ease fast in-theater deployments.
Raytheon also sold an offering called TCS (Tactical Control System) to the US Navy, the UK and Canada.
Too Close to the Sun: ICARUS and Autonomy
Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is developing a UAV control system that combines the ability to control multiple UAV platforms with a degree of UAV autonomy.
The Intelligent Control and Autonomous Re-planning of Unmanned Systems (ICARUS) suite of technologies were demonstrated during the US Navy’s Edge Command and Control/Hybrid Operations (ECC/HO) in August 2008.
The ECC/HO exercises consisted of a tactical operations center operator working in conjunction with a mobile command and control (C2) unit and soldiers on-the-ground. Control of the sensors on-board a UAV and an unmanned surface vehicle was handed-off between ICARUS consoles within the center, the mobile C2 unit and soldiers on-the-ground as the mission unfolded.
Throughout the live exercise, ICARUS dynamically planned and re-planned vehicle operations to meet task requests, enabling a single operator to play the role of a mission manager. The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance products were shared directly by all participants.
That’s an important capability both for integrating the operations of multiple platforms and reducing the number of people that it takes to operate UAVs. Reducing the number of people involves increasing the autonomy of unmanned systems.
But autonomy has been a bottleneck for UAV developments, and the overall value and rate of expansion of the future UAV market could be largely driven by advances in this field.
The goal of UAV autonomy technology is to reduce the role of the human pilot. It remains to be seen whether future developments of autonomy technology, the perception of the technology, and the political climate will limit the development and utility of UAV autonomy applications.
Greater autonomy means less human involvement with UAV actions. As more UAVs are weaponized, this could present a dilemma for US commanders. As Lt. Col Brendan Harris, head of an intelligence squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, said in a New York Times interview:
“You need somebody who’s trained and is accountable in recognizing that that is a woman, that is a child and that is someone who’s carrying a weapon. And the best tools for that are still the eyeball and the human brain.”
Autonomy for unmanned systems, particular ones that carry weapons, raises a number of legal and ethical issues that are beyond the scope of this article. For an in-depth discussion of this topic, see DID’s guest article by P.W. Singer of The Brookings Institution: “In the Loop? Armed Robots and the Future of War.”
Finally, a separate article covers what to do with all this UAV data once the barriers come down.
Contracts and Key Events
Sept 29/11: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. in San Diego, CA receives a $65 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract for the Block 30 retrofit for 31 fixed ground control stations; plus 43 mobile ground control stations (MGCS); 24 dual control ground control stations; 1 multi-aircraft control ground control station; three system integration laboratories; 1 multi-aircraft control system integration laboratory; 26 Predator mission aircrew training systems; and associated spares. The contract also includes 3 MGCS for Foreign Military Sales to the United Kingdom (2%), who operates the firm’s MQ-9 Reaper UAVs.
The ASC/WIIK at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH manages the contract (FA8620-10-G-3038, 0014).
September 7/11: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. in Poway, CA receives a $69 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract for to provide universal ground control stations and data terminals (UGDT). estimated completion date of July 31, 2013. One bid was solicited, with one bid received. The U.S. Army Contracting Command (ACC), Redstone Arsenal, AL, is the contracting activity (W58RGZ-09-C-0151).
August 17/11: After receiving the ITAR greenlight from the US Department of State, Raytheon has recently shown its CGCS to the UK’s MOD. Raytheon hopes to sell its system to manage British and/or French UAVs such as the Scavenger. The company bases its pitch on the openness of its software architecture.
April 12/11: AAI Corp in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $6.7 million cost plus fixed-fee contract for 1,184 one system remote video terminal (OSRVT) systems. Work will be performed at Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of Oct 31/12. One bid was solicited and one received by the US Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-06-C-0190).
March 14/11: AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $7.4 million firm-fixed-price contract to add new receiver components into the OSRVT baseline. Work will be performed in Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of Aug 31/11. One bid was solicited with one bid received by the US Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-06-C-0190).
November 2009: The French DGA procurement agency discusses its 2009 urgences operations (UO, formerly “crash programs”) budget. Key 2009 programs include the integration of America’s Remote Operational Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) ground-to-air communications into 25 Mirage 2000 fighters. Read “France’s Crash Programs Budget Doubled in 2009” for full details.
June 17/09: Harris Corp. announces the release of its ISR receiver, known as the RF-7800T, which provides a portable ROVER receiver for UAV video.
April 30/09: A FedBizOpps notice issued by the US Army Contracting Command announces the holding of UAS Control Segment Architecture Industry Days May 27-28/09 in Huntsville, AL to get industry input for control segment architecture approaches for all Department of Defense (DoD) Group 2-5 UAS. The government is seeking involvement of industry in defining this modular open systems architecture.
April 30/09: Textron subsidiary AAI Co. in Hunt Valley, MD received a $29.2 million cost plus fixed-fee contract for 12 months of Contractor Logistics Support (CLS) of their One System Remote Video Terminals (OSRVT) and its Mobile Directional Antenna System (MDAS).
Work is to be performed in Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of April 30/10. U.S. Army Contracting Command, AMCOM Contracting Center, in Redstone Arsenal, AL manages this contract (W58RGZ-06-C-0190).
Oct 9/08: A $26.6 million firm-fixed-price contract for Remote Operational Video Enhanced Receiver systems. Work will be performed in Salt lake City, UT with estimated and completion date of Dec 30/09. One bid was solicited and one bid was received (W58RGZ-07-C-0209).
Sept 3/08: Lockheed Martin announces that it successfully demonstrated its ICARUS system as part of the US Navy’s Edge Command and Control/Hybrid Operations exercise held Aug 12-14/08. The exercise was part of the Navy Network Warfare Command’s annual TRIDENT WARRIOR 08 technology insertion demonstration and was attended by representatives from numerous Navy commands.
Aug 18/08: L-3 Communications System West in Salt Lake City, Utah received a $7.2 million firm-fixed price contract for E-ROVER systems. Work will be performed in Salt Lake City, UT and is expected to be complete by Oct. 31, 2008. One bid was solicited on June 4/08 by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-07-C-0209).
May 5/08: AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $14.5 million cost-plus-fixed fee contract for 12 months of Contractor Logistics Support (CLS) for their One System Remote Video Terminals (OSRVT) and its Mobile Directional Antenna System (MDAS).
Work will be performed in Hunt Valley, MD, and is expected to be complete by April 30/09. One bid was solicited on January 2008 by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-06-C-0190).
Sept 18/07: Small business qualifier AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, MD received a $13.2 million modification to a firm-fixed-price contract for One System Remote Video Terminals (OSRVT) and the accompanying Mobile Directional Antenna System (MDAS).
Work will be performed in Hunt Valley, MD, and is expected to be complete by Dec 31/09. This was a sole source contract initiated on April 17/07 by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-06-C-0190).
Sept 7/07: L-3 Communications System West in Salt Lake City, Utah received a $16.3 million firm-fixed-price contract for Enhanced ROVER III Systems. Work will be performed in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is expected to be complete by April 30, 2008. This was a sole source contract initiated on July 30, 2007 by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-07-C-0209).
Nov 13/06: L-3 Communications announces that it has begun the first customer shipments of its next-generation ROVER III data links, adding the ability to decode multiple subcarriers from L and C Band analog and C Band digital signals. This new capability also supports add-in software to decode the proprietary metadata transmitted on many Unmanned Aerial Sensor (UAS) platforms. The new ROVER III is the major component of the U.S. Army’s One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT).
Oct 31/06: Raytheon unveils its universal control system (UCS) for UAVs at the Shephard UV North America 2006 conference held in Tysons Corner, VA. This system is intended to increase operator awareness and efficiency, while providing the ability to control multiple unmanned aircraft, reduce accidents, improve training and decrease costs.
May 23/06: Sniper XR Pods add ROVER Downlink to Troops. Lockheed Martin has received a U.S. Air Force cost-plus contract worth approximately $9 million to upgrade its sniper pods with video downlink capabilities to Man Pack Rover III ground-based receivers. Sniper pods are currently flying on the U.S. Air Force F-15Es and F-16s, are in developmental flight test on the A-10, and are being integrated on the B-1 bomber. Norway, Poland, and Singapore also fly the Sniper XR/ Pantera pods.
Sept 16/02: NATO announces that members nations began the formal ratification process for STANAG 4586, which sets out the specifications for a common ground station for UAVs used by NATO forces. According to NATO, implementation will enable information between different national UAVs to be collated and shared via common ground station.
- Raytheon – Common Ground Control System (CGCS)
- AAI Textron – Universal Ground Control Station brochure [pdf]
- AAI Textron – The One System
- L-3 communications – ROVER V Receiver product data sheet [pdf]
- CDL Systems – NATO STANAG 4586
- DID – MQ-9 Reaper
- Defense Update – RQ-1A/MQ-1 Predator UAV
- Popular Mechanics (March 2010) – The Future for UAVs in the U.S. Air Force
- Defense Systems (Feb 4/10) – Sensory overload: Military is dealing with a data deluge
- DefenseTech.org (Jan 12/10) – The UAV Data Firehose
- New York Times (Jan 10/10) – Military Is Awash in Data From Drones
- National Defense (January 2010) – Military ‘Swimming in Sensors and Drowning in Data’
- National Defense (November 2009) – Battlefield Intelligence: Easy to Collect, Tough to Share
- Lockheed Martin (October 2009) – Today newsletter (includes information about ICARUS)
- Aviation Week and Space Technology (Aug 10/09) – Open Architecture for UAV Ground Control
- C4ISR Journal (Aug 1/09) – Unmanned overhaul: Pentagon, U.S. Air Force initiatives prescribe new way to buy, manage UAVs
- DID (June 30/09) – One for All: AAI Textron’s UAV Control System
- C4ISR Journal (June 2/09) – Ground plan: Pentagon orders shift to common UAV control stations
- DID (Jan 28/09) – In the Loop? Armed Robots and the Future of War. Guest article by the Brookings Institution’s P.W. Singer, who looks at the trend toward robotic autonomy, its driving forces, and the issues it raises. Will humans remain “in the loop”? And what if they don’t?
- Defense News (Jan 19/09) – DoD to Set UAV Standards by Summer
- DID (Oct 12/08) – ROVER Sics TacAir on Enemies (updated)
- Associated Press (July 20/08) – Military drones, a la video games
- Business Week (July 16/08) – Raytheon Taps Video Games to Pilot Drones
- The Times of London (July 12/08) – Raytheon Universal Control System creates a new rule of thumb
- Associated Press (Jan 2/08) – Rise of the Machines: UAV Use Soars
- USAF (Aug 1/06) – ROVER adds extra set of eyes to sky
- Naval War College (Feb 13/06) – Unmanned Aircraft Systems: The Road to Effective Integration
- NATO (September 2005) – NATO Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Interoperability Architecture (NIIA)