Although Australian industry is arguably not a major player in the global Unmanned Aerial Systems marketplace, it nevertheless plays an important role in technology development and support of local programmes. The UAS industry has also been assisted by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) through the government/industry Capability and Technology Demonstrator (CTD) programme, leading to several innovative developments which have commercial potential.
7th Oct 2011
AUSTRALIA’S UNMANNED SYSTEMS INDUSTRY BASE (Amended 7/10/11)
Although Australian industry is arguably not a major player in the global Unmanned Aerial Systems marketplace, it nevertheless plays an important role in technology development and support of local programmes.
The UAS industry has also been assisted by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) through the government/industry Capability and Technology Demonstrator (CTD) programme, leading to several innovative developments which have commercial potential.
Several major Australian Defence Force projects will involve Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Systems over the next few years and this will provide even greater scope for the local representatives of the global primes and Small to Medium Enterprises alike.
Defence isn’t the only market for UAV systems either, with civilian applications including use by police and other emergency services, oil and gas exploration, agriculture and even movie-making. The Unmanned Aerial Systems market is a growth industry and one which may prove to be very lucrative in the years ahead.
Although several Defence projects will make use of unmanned technology the recent Defence Capability Plan highlights three major aviation-based programmes which will come to fruition in the next decade or so.
The first is JP129 which is acquiring the AAI RQ-7B Storm Shadow 200 Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (TUAS) to support land forces during operations. Besides the opportunity for local industry to perhaps participate in support and training, a further phase outlined in the DCP will consider either upgrade or replacement of the RQ-7B after ten years, to ensure it remains technologically viable. A further phase, which is due to enter service around 2014, will acquire a hand-held (Tier 1) UAS to replace the current Elbit Systems Skylark.
Joint Project JP66 will acquire a new Air Defence Target System (ADTS) to replace the incumbent BAE Systems MQM-107E Kalkara. The project is currently awaiting Second Pass approval and will most likely utilise several types of unmanned vehicles as well as manned aircraft, due to the wide scope of end user requirements.
Arguably the most ambitious Defence project to involve a UAS is Project Air 7000 Phase 1B which will seek to acquire a High Altitude Long Endurance system for maritime and littoral surveillance sometime in the next decade. The favoured platform for this requirement is Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Global Hawk, though the project was pushed to the right a couple of years ago and a formal selection process is not due until somewhere around 2018. Local opportunities in this programme revolve around the section of an Industry Capability Partner (ICP) and the development and operation of an Integrated Ground Environment for the air vehicle.
DSTO AND THE CTD
Australia’s DSTO has conducted research and development in the Unmanned Aerial Systems field for many years, with a heritage stretching back to the development of the Jindivik target drone in the early late 1940s and 1950s.
Today it has an interest in all unmanned systems and their application to Defence, including underwater and land unmanned technologies. Although Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are further along the development path and now in widespread use around the globe, DSTO is involved in several projects above and below the waves.
In May 2005, for example, the organization signed a three-year initial agreement with the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) to collaborate on unmanned systems research. The official Defence announcement of the agreement gave examples of the work-scope intended, saying it included work on “ a programme to establish an Uninhabited Ground Vehicle (UGV) experimentation infrastructure within DSTO; development of a science and technology ‘roadmap’ for UGVs to help the Australian Defence Organization identify critical systems requirements, major technology areas, and main drivers for Australian Defence Force UGVs; specialist training and research opportunities for DSTO and ACFR, particularly in estimation and data fusion, autonomous navigation, sensors for autonomous navigation, and systems engineering; investigation of the military application of autonomous underwater vehicles (UUVs), particularly teams of UUVs equipped with advanced acoustic sensors and communications in mine clearing applications.
As a research organization DSTO lacks the necessary skills and funds to commercially develop some of the work it undertakes and Government has therefore developed the innovative Capability and Technology Demonstrator programme to assist local industry in the development of relevant technologies.
The CTD process seeks to improve defence capability by providing research organizations in Australia and New Zealand with the opportunity to demonstrate technologies whilst allowing Defence to assess its capabilities and/or risks. DSTO manages the CTD programme on behalf of Defence’ Capability Development Group and allocates funds annually to SMEs.
The CTD programme is credited with bringing several emerging technologies into the marketplace and it continues to fund new technologies. One of the most recent examples of this was announced by the Minister for Defense Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon in late August, with the unveiling of a project to improve underwater sonar sensing for ships, submarines, and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). Known as the Nanoparticle-Hydrophone Development system, it has been developed by Phoenix Engineering Systems Pty. Ltd. with Thales Australia, and uses using small pad-like devices installed on the hulls of vessels.
Other projects with unmanned applications on the CTD ‘wish list’ currently include: Autonomous detection and neutralization of Underwater Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), collision avoidance technology for small UAVs, launch and recovery systems for UUVs, navigation/communications systems for autonomous land, sea and air vehicles and robotics and unmanned systems research.
With unmanned technology becoming such a sought after capability, it is not surprising that the local arms of the global defence corporations are engaged in research, development and manufacture. However Australia has a rich history of technical innovation by SMEs and local technology has been exported to the world.
Historically this has mostly concerned Unmanned Aerial Vehicle applications and although it is not an exhaustive account of Australia’s UAV industrial footprint, the following provides a brief overview of local capability in this field.
Aerosonde is a Melbourne-based company which has, over the years, developed a range of small UAS systems and is a pioneer of unmanned research in Australia. Today it is owned by the AAI Corporation, an operating unit of Textron Systems, but retains its Australian footprint. The Aerosonde series of UAVs has been employed by customers such as NASA, the US Office of Naval Research, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US military and our own DSTO.
At the present time the company is marketing its Aerosonde 4.7 UAS, which was first showcased at the 2010 Bahrain Airshow. Able to carry a 4.5 kg EO/IR payload aloft for around 10 hours and is catapult launched and capable of being recovered by a net. The Aerosonde 4.7 is also compatible with AAI’s Expeditionary Ground Control Station (EGCS).
Given that AAI has won the retendered JP129 TUAV competition with the Shadow 200, it can be argued that Aerosonde is well placed to win the support and training contracts for the programme; however it is understood that these will be put out for tender by Defence.
BAE Systems Australia has been involved in UAS development in Australia for several years, both within its own right and in support of the single-engined HERTI and twin-turboprop Mantis platforms tested at Woomera in recent times.
It is also one of the two contenders for the JP66 ATDS bid, currently awaiting Second Pass Approval. The other bidder is a teaming arrangement between Airservices Australia and Pel-Air.
BAE Systems Australia has developed the indigenous Brumby and Kingfisher UAVs, which have been used to support demonstrations and experiments over the past several years. Designed as a low-cost vehicle which is both simple to operate and easy to modify, Kingfisher is a 4.2 metre wingspan platform able to lift a payload of 30 kg and stay aloft for up to 15 hours. It has been used to support testing of the company’s UAV Ground Control Station (GCS) and Imagery Collection and Exploitation (ICE) sensor payload.
Much of the work done in the past was in support of the original JP129 bid, won by Boeing Australia and IAI before the programme was terminated and recommenced in 2010. In the original competition the BAE Systems team offered the Shadow 200 TUAV and used its reach-back into the UK parent to develop a range of products in support of the bid.
The company was awarded two CTD contracts in 2007 to explore Decentralised Data Fusion (DDF) and to carry out initial design work on UAV platform known as FURI (Future UAV for Reconnaissance and Interdiction). It had also developed, in conjunction with its parent, a UAV Management System (UMS) for the JP129 bid. Though not successful in that instance, UMS development was a key element in the company’s proposal for the AIR 7000 Phase 1B Integrated Ground Environment, though this is now some way in the future.
As well as BAE, Raytheon Australia was keen to develop its Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) for the programme and other defence giants such as EADS, Northrop Grumman and SAAB systems were also looking to team with local partners to provide the IGE.
BAE Systems Australia has also carried out multi-UAV autonomous operations development work, where two or more platforms can operate in close harmony without ground controller input. It has also combined all of these systems together into what it terms a UES or UAV experimentation system. Although acronym-heavy, the company says the UES is “comprised of multiple small UAVs and a ground station that have been developed for the demonstration of technologies such as DDF and SLAM (Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping)”.
Simultaneous multiple, or ‘swarming’ UAV experimentation work is also being undertaken by Boeing’s Phantom Works in the United States, with crucial input provided by its local subsidiary, Boeing Defence Australia at its Kingaroy facility. Most recently it demonstrated the ability of two dissimilar UAVs to operate together autonomously over the forests of Oregon. The trial was run in conjunction with the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and included two Insitu ScanEagles and a Procerus UAV from the University.
Insitu is a Boeing subsidiary, as is its local company, Insitu Pacific Limited. IPL has been supporting ADF ScanEagle operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in June, announced it had achieved 25,000 operational flight hours in Afghanistan, set against a coalition total of over half a million combat flight hours. ScanEagle has been use with the ADF since June 2007 and flies up to 880 flight hours and 150 operational sorties per month in support of troops on the ground.
To support ScanEagle in the region, Insitu Pacific was established in Brisbane in 2009 and currently has a small number of personnel embedded with the Australian Army in Afghanistan to provide maintenance and support. Along with Boeing Defence Australia it has worked with the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA), ajoint research collaboration between the CSIRO ICT Centre, Autonomous Systems Lab, and the School of Engineering Systems at the Queensland University of Technology, to develop a ‘Smart Skies’ system whereby manned and unmanned aircraft can share the same airspace around uncontrolled airfields.
The Smart Skies work was conducted at the ARCAA facility at Brisbane airport and the relatively quiet airfields at Kingaroy and Watts Bridge, using a company-owned ScanEagle and Cessna 172. The ScanEagle Tier II UAS has also been tested with a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) fitted, which has obvious civilian applications in addition to the Anti-Submarine Warfare role that is of interest to Defence. Testing of the ScanEagle/MAD combination took place off the deck of a merchant vessel in the Tasman Sea during 2009, and the concept has attracted the interest of mining exploration companies.
Insitu has demonstrated shipboard launch and recovery of ScanEagle to several Navies, including the RAN and Singapore Navy and whilst there is not yet a requirement in the DCP it remains a capability which is being closely monitored.
Perth-based Cyber Technologies is an example of an Australian UAS manufacturer enjoying success in both military and civilian markets around the world. It has several unmanned vehicles in its portfolio, including the CyberQuad hand-held electrically powered ducted Quad-Rotor; CyberEye II Medium Altitude Long Range UAV able to lift a 10 kg payload for up to ten hours; CyBird, a modular turbojet-powered reusable drone for advanced payload research and the Cyberwraith, a medium to high-speed jet-powered target drone.
Cyber Technologies is partnered with several companies, including the Sapura Group, which markets the Cyber series of UAVs in Malaysia. Sapura has interests in the Oil & Gas, Secured Technologies, Industrial & Automotive Manufacturing and Knowledge & Education markets and has also developed the CyberShark small helicopter-based UAV. At the last LIMA aerospace and maritime show on Langkawi, Sapura officials revealed that three CyberEye platforms had been sold to Thailand and also claimed it had sold air vehicles to a defence customer in Australia.
The CyberEye has recently been developed with a full Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (COFDM) digital video transmission and receiving station, which the company says improves both the quality of received video and the range at which it can be transmitted. Recent innovations have also included the development of an on-board power generation system and the installation of a recovery parachute to reduce dependency on prepared surfaces.
An example of a local company which contributes something other than air vehicles to the UAS market is Sentient Vision Systems, based in Melbourne. Sentient has developed ‘plug and play’ moving target detection software for EO/IR systems, under the DSTO CTD programme.
Known as the Kestrel, the system is being marketed in both land and maritime MTI versions, promising automatic detection of moving targets, down to 2x2 pixels.
The Kestrel system is being used in Afghanistan with the ADF, with the IAI Heron MALE UAV acquired under Project Nankeen. The system is software based and can detect small, slow and camouflaged objects and has been proven, in some cases of high-contrast, to significantly improve on the manufacturer’s claims.
Wing Commander David Riddel, RAAF Deputy Director – Air Combat Capability has publicly acknowledged the benefit Kestrel brings to the 5 Flight Heron Detachment in-theatre: “Kestrel detects any small movements in the field of view and alerts our operators to targets that are easily missed – camouflaged vehicles in rough terrain, dismounts or ‘squirters’ leaving houses” he has said “This gives our commanders a complete understanding of the situation on the ground”.
Kestrel is currently undergoing Operational Evaluation with the Royal Canadian Air Force, aboard one of its CP-140 Aurora Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance aircraft and Sentient has recently signed an agreement with Overwatch, a Textron company, to market and support Kestrel for the United States and other international defence and intelligence organisation.
Sentient is a good example of the benefits of collaboration with DSTO under the CTD scheme and with unmanned systems increasing exponentially, there is room for much more local development by Defence businesses both small and large..