Magazine article National Defense

Aerial Drone Sensor Data Now Linked to Apache Helicopters

Magazine article National Defense

Aerial Drone Sensor Data Now Linked to Apache Helicopters

Article excerpt


A new communications link installed on Apache helicopters streams full-motion video into cockpits, which is giving pilots a more complete picture of what's happening in the complex urban landscapes where they fight, said Army aviation officials.

The service is working toward giving these same crews the ability to control the UAVs from their cockpits --and eventually--fire the drones' weapons.

"It became very clear through several engagements in Iraq that we were suffering from a lack of situational awareness when it came to [the] Apache," said Tim Owings, deputy project manager at the Army's unmanned aerial systems program.

The Apache attack helicopter when it arrives in a battle zone comes in low and fast, he said. But the crew only sees a two-dimensional view of the area. For example, the front of a building, but not who or what might be lurking behind it.

The video from unmanned aerial systems for interoperability teaming system, dubbed VUIT-2 by its maker Lockheed Martin, sends feeds from nearby UAVs to the helicopters so pilots can see what's happening around the corner, he said.

For years, military technologists have been pushing to achieve manned-unmanned teaming in the field, where robotics systems and regular forces better coordinate their efforts. Program managers on the project said this is a first step to take this concept from PowerPoint slides to reality.

Now a pilot "not only sees the target he's engaging in the front, he knows what's happening behind the building, he knows if the individuals he was sent in to engage have evacuated out the back, he knows what's happening on the roof of the building."

The system is shortening the helicopter crews' sensor-to-shooter intervals, which is the amount of time it takes to locate a target and fire a weapon, program managers claim.

Prior to the installation of the system, UAV operators would have to use radio communications to verbally describe to helicopter pilots the location of a target.

In addition, the Apaches are now able to send what their sensors see to forces on the ground, thus helping to increase troops' situational awareness.

"The Apache's real-time video informs the ground forces of potential danger zones, giving them an opportunity to plan alternative, safer routes," said Lt Col. Robert Johnston, product manager for the Longbow Apache, in a written statement.

The 1-10 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, a component of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, has been using the system since late 2008. So far, no units in Afghanistan have received the system. The Army has requested funding for an additional nine battalions to be equipped with the VUIT-2 systems

The basis for this program is the one-system remote video terminal. The device is agnostic as to what platform is sending the data. It doesn't have to be a UAV. It can be a tethered aerostat, manned or unmanned ground sensors, Owings said. An Apache crew might have access to 20 sensors placed around a battle zone, he said.

Owings stressed that it wasn't enough to simply send a video over a communications link to a helicopter pilot. The display must also send over telemetry data that helps the pilot know where the target is in relation to his own aircraft.

"How do you make sure that target you are looking at from the UAV is the same as the one you are engaging in?" he asked. Without this data, it's not possible.

"It just doesn't give you video, it gives you situational perspective of the video. …

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