Big year for BAE’s UAVs
This promises to be a milestone year for BAE Systems’ growing unmanned air systems business with the first flights of both the demonstrator for the Mantis persistent ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) aircraft and of the production-standard Herti. On top of this, the UK group will complete manufacturing of its new Taranis demonstrator.
Having identified the unmanned air vehicle as a key area for future growth, BAE embarked on a series of projects to apply its technological expertise to this growing sector. In February 2006 it established an autonomous systems and future capability department to concentrate on UAV-related work. Later it created the global unmanned air systems team to tie together the UAS capabilities from across the company.
The UK group may be seen as a latecomer to the UAV world, but the delay allowed it to jump ahead in terms of autonomous systems technology. Its projects encompass a high degree of autonomy–not only for the operation of the vehicles themselves, but also of the onboard systems.
BAE’s vehicles are designed to launch and recover with complete autonomy once the basic mission parameters have been established. Onboard systems can direct the vehicle to taxi from its parking spot, through takeoff and climbout, perform the mission profile and then recover to a designated spot without human intervention other than the mouse-click that initiates the process.
During the transit to and from the mission area, the UAV flies itself through a corridor, with the inbuilt ability to react to various situations by itself should they arise. It has sufficient situational awareness to operate completely “off-tether,” a useful feature if communications links with the ground are lost.
Mission systems are also designed to autonomously analyze data and act accordingly, not only to reduce operator workload, but also to minimize bandwidth requirements. In the reconnaissance role the mission system can be programmed to send back only images it deems to be of interest, and then only as “thumbnails.” If the human operator decides they are worth a closer look, then high-resolution images are requested.
BAE’s system also has the ability to offer varying levels of autonomy, depending on the circumstances. When an armed UAV or unmanned combat air vehicle is operating in a target area, the level of autonomy granted to the vehicle can be constrained, allowing the operator to have more direct control of the system.
Such levels of autonomy and system intelligence change the dynamics of UAV operations. At the same time, intelligent autonomy vastly reduces the system’s overall footprint by reducing the size of the team needed to operate it, and makes it more robust in operation by its reduced reliance on the maintenance of communications links.
BAE Systems currently has three major UAV programs: Herti, Taranis and Mantis. They grew out of work performed with the Kestrel, Raven and Corax trial machines, from which arose an impressive autonomous capability.
The company took the logical step of applying that technology to a low-cost vehicle that would have multiple applications in both military and civil security fields. The result was the Herti (high-endurance rapid-technology insertion) that first flew in late 2004.
Herti is a family of conventional UAVs that can fulfill a variety of missions. Trials have included evaluation in Afghanistan (Project Morrigan), proving the safe operation of UAVs in an operational environment alongside manned aircraft. As part of the trials, the Herti relayed intelligence imagery back to the UK via satellite “reachback.” It also tested the ICE II autonomous imagery collection and exploitation system. Herti is also due to be demonstrated in the U.S.
BAE Systems subsequently sanctioned the construction of a small batch of production-standard Hertis, built by Slingsby, and the first flew earlier this year. The Herti is built to civilian standards and is leading the drive in the UK for the certification of UAVs to operate in civil airspace.
Following customer interest in a low-cost armed system, BAE Systems devised the Fury, which shares the airframe and some system components with Herti, but combines new mission system avionics and a new stores management system with a proven weapons guidance system. For initial armed trials, the Fury launched the Thales lightweight multirole missile, the first live firing being conducted in June 2008.
Arguably, BAE’s most important UAV program is the Taranis advanced technology demonstrator, for which the company is the prime contractor. Industry partners on this UK government-led but jointly funded project include Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ and GE Aviation. Begun in December 2006, the $186 million four-year program is part of Britain’s strategic unmanned air vehicle experiment (SUAVe) and will result in a UCAV demonstrator with fully integrated autonomous systems and low-observable features. Many of the technologies used in the Taranis design were de-risked in the Raven program.
Taranis will help inform the UK Ministry of Defence of the potential of UAVs within the future armed forces mix. It greatly strengthens the UK’s ability to maintain its sovereign combat aircraft and UAV/UCAV technology. A UCAV is expected to form at least part of the UK MoD’s deep and persistent offensive capability requirement, with a nominal service entry date of 2018.
Taranis is a blended-wing vehicle that will be powered by a Rolls-Royce Adour Mk 951 turbofan. The shape draws on experience from the Raven and Corax flying demonstrators, and also from the BAE Systems Replica and the UK MoD Nightjar ground-based stealth demonstration programs.
Construction of the Taranis demonstrator got under way at Warton in late 2007 and final assembly commenced at the end of 2008. Initial ground trials are on schedule for late 2009, with a first flight slated for next year.
Mantis is an advanced technology demonstrator for a strategic long-range UAV that will have 24-plus hours of endurance and operate at more than 40,000 feet. The vehicle is equipped with a multi-sensor turret–initially L-3 Wescam’s MX-20–and radar under the fuselage, with a satcoms antenna in the upper nose section (and backup in a fin radome).
Mantis benefits from BAE Systems’ experience in rapid engineering and advanced construction techniques. While the airframe appears to be relatively simple, it is built from a revolutionary all- carbon composite cured in a low-temperature oven, as opposed to standard high- temperature autoclaves. The airframe’s keel construction allows large apertures to be cut into the skin along the fuselage for varying sensor loads, without compromising structural integrity.
BAE Systems is planning an incremental development for Mantis, with Spiral 1 focusing on deep-persistent ISTAR capabilities, and weapons-carrying ability being explored through Spirals 2 and 3. Power comes initially from two Rolls-Royce 250B17 turboprops, although alternative engines are also being studied.
Mantis is being developed as an advanced concept technology demonstrator, jointly funded by the MoD. Industrial partners include Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ, Selex Galileo, GE Aviation and Meggitt. Other members of the industry team are Slingsby and Lola, which have been courted for their ability to rapidly produce composite components.
As well as advanced future technology programs, BAE Systems is using its autonomous systems to develop an unmanned airship (GA22) and is investigating an autogyro concept (Ampersand). GA22 is a 72-foot airship designed by Lindstrand Technologies that undertook its first flight on Sept. 30, 2008. The first flight was remotely piloted in advance of fully autonomous flight trials later this year. BAE Systems has also acquired a manned Rotorsport UK MT-03 autogyro to aid its Ampersand studies.