Ground Control: Drone Operators Ask Industry for 'Open' Systems

By Jean, Grace V. | National Defense, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Ground Control: Drone Operators Ask Industry for 'Open' Systems


Jean, Grace V., National Defense


The ground-based equipment that is used to fly unmanned combat aircraft is not adequate to handle the demanding missions of current conflicts, operators say.

Of most concern is the design and configuration of the control stations where pilots fly surveillance drones over combat zones thousands of miles away. Operators have said that the workstation displays do not provide sufficient views of their surroundings, and that the aircraft-control system does not allow them to fly more than one aircraft at a time.

Companies are reacting to these complaints with redesigned control stations that place operators in a cockpit-like environment. The new systems also are attempting to improve interoperability by conforming to open standards that facilitate communications with different types of aircraft. While progress is being made, there are still some hurdles.

One of the obstacles is that the manufacturers of unmanned aircraft and the makers of the ground equipment do not necessarily work together.

"We, the ground system providers, are being held hostage by the platform providers," says Mark Bigham, director of business development at Raytheon Tactical Intelligence Systems. "We are open and willing to be compliant and fly whatever the military wants us to fly."

Drone manufacturers have been reluctant to share their proprietary communications datalink formats with other companies. They produce ground stations that control only their specific aircraft, which means that the services often have to buy the complete package. That has proven cumbersome and inefficient because the equipment is not compatible with aircraft made by other manufacturers.

In an effort to encourage less "stove-piping," Congress has mandated that all unmanned aircraft weighing more than 45 pounds must transition to a tactical common datalink that will enable them to interoperate with various ground technologies.

There also is a movement to ensure that ground stations can communicate with multiple aircraft. War commanders want to be able to fly numerous drones from a single ground station, and in the Army's case, operators want to control different makes and models of aircraft as well.

"Our customers are forcing us to open standards," says Tom Bachman, divisional vice president for AAI Corp.'s One System programs.

AAI Corp., which manufacturers the Shadow and Hunter unmanned systems, modified its ground control station software to comply with a NATO standard agreement for interoperability between drones that is known as STANAG 4586.

Bachman says the STANAG architecture, which separates an aircraft's specific software from the common user interface, makes it easier to add new aircraft systems to the "One System" ground control station. Moving to that architecture has enabled the technology to control seven different types of unmanned aircraft.

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The common user interface is analogous to Windows in the computer industry, he says. The aircraft specific software is similar to a printer driver that communicates with a certain type of printer. If the printer runs out of ink, its driver puts a message indicator on the screen. The same holds true for an unmanned system communicating through the ground control station via a vehicle-specific module.

The station recently completed several takeoff and landing tests of the Sky Warrior, the Army's newest drone that is based on the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator. That accomplishment demonstrates that the ground station can control an aircraft made by another manufacturer, Bachman says.

The Army plans to field five One System ground control stations to 11 Sky Warrior companies. Sky Warrior deploys to the Middle East later this year.

Air Force contractors also have made the workstation design a priority. General Atomics re-engineered its current ground control station for the Predator unmanned aircraft to improve the human-machine interface.

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Ground Control: Drone Operators Ask Industry for 'Open' Systems
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