The Army’s reliance on unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has steadily increased in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an upcoming exercise will showcase the next step of integration between unmanned systems, manned aircraft and soldiers and sensors on the ground.
Slated for September at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, the Manned/Unmanned Systems Integration Capability (MUSIC) exercise will be the largest manned and unmanned systems integration test ever conducted, said Timothy Owings, the UAS deputy program manager in the Army aviation program executive office.
"The MUSIC exercise will bring the entire package together to showcase the ability for us to exchange information not only on the unmanned side but the manned side as well," he said. "It will demonstrate interoperability and systems integration among Army aviation assets."
Both AH-64 Apache Block II and III variants, OH-58 Kiowas and every type of unmanned platform in operation will participate, Owings said.
In addition to showcasing sensor technology, MUSIC will also demonstrate bi-direct remote video where a soldier on the ground can take control of the payload in a UAS whether in a command vehicle or from a remote video terminal.
The exercise comes at a time when UAS vehicles have combined for more than 1 million flight hours in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Army is still trying to get a better footing for training in national airspace, Owings said.
"Eventually, we’re going to have to have a lot of training places here stateside, and we’re working that today," he said.
However, ramping up unmanned aircraft use from "practically non-existent" before operations in Iraq began in 2002 to what it is today has allowed for improvements in a variety of technologies, Owing said.
The biggest advance has been camera payloads, where wide-aerial surveillance lenses have increased an unmanned aircraft’s optic range 10-fold over the last 10 years.
This has given unmanned aircraft the ability to broadcast a bigger picture of what’s happening on the ground, which means less aircraft are needed in the air while still blanketing the ground with around-the-clock coverage.
Universal ground control systems have also allowed operators to control multiple platforms and switch between missions "fairly seamlessly," Owings said. Gone are the days where one controller on the ground was responsible for only one aircraft.
Last year, the Army started using the Federated Universal Synchronization Engine (FUSE) that takes advantage of commercial technology, such as Google Earth, where sensors map targets and report information back for intelligence and targeting use, Owings said.
FUSE "dramatically increases the effectiveness of unmanned aircraft systems through more effective queuing, sharing information and multiplying the capability of the systems," he said. The information can be "pushed across the battlefield or in the air" to remote terminals or even smart phones or other handheld devices.
The Army has also expanded its UAS nest with the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and the rotary-winged A-160 Hummingbird is expected to be added soon.
Even with more and newer aircraft added to the unmanned fleet, maintenance costs have gone down over the past five fiscal years as have incident rates, Owings said. Flight adaptation software has also been tested to guard against incidents such as battle damage or engine failure.
He showed a video at the AUSA Army Aviation Symposium and Exposition Jan. 14 of a recent test where a medium-sized unmanned vehicle was able to land safely and in control after a chunk of wing was blown off in flight.
"I’m not happy where incident rates are but we still continue to drive them down," he said.