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Army seeks “soldier-proof” unmanned systems

Wasp AE no background

The Wasp AE small UAS.

Australian industry involvement has been put at the heart of a plan to acquire a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) to be used by Australian Army soldiers that is expected to be man-portable or carried within a team.

The requirement for the first tranche of UAS being acquired under the LAND 129 Phase 4 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle project is regarded as operationally urgent, meaning these aircraft are being purchased as military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) systems.

However, the second tranche is not as urgently required, presenting an opportunity for an innovative approach, as Chief of Army Lieutenant General Angus Campbell outlined in an address to the Future Land Force Conference 2016, held in conjunction with the LAND FORCES exhibition in Adelaide.

“While Australian firms currently do not manufacture military-spec UAS of this size, many Australian companies make the components of such a UAS to world-class standards,” LTGEN Campbell said in the speech in September.

“With the idea that we would like to see an Australian solution for the next tranche of these aircraft, Rapid Prototyping, Development and Evaluation seed funding was sought to investigate and test options…it is early days but the idea is showing promise.

“Recently, Defence met with 10 Australian companies who expressed interest in the RPDE activity. I am sure I do not need to elaborate about the wider benefits should this activity proceed to full development.”

Back in April, Australian homeland security company XTEK stated that it has been selected as the preferred tenderer for the supply and support of sUAS under LAND 129 Phase 4.

XTEK, which has offered the AeroVironment Wasp AE micro air vehicle, added that contract negotiations would involve a reduction in the scope of the initial supply.

The Commonwealth had been seeking to purchase 78 sUAS in this initial batch, according to an expression of interest notice that was published in September 2015.

Weighing 1.3kg, the Wasp AE micro air vehicle is designed for ground and water landings; operating with a communications range of 5km and a flight endurance of 50 minutes, it carries interchangeable payload modules.

AeroVironment directed a request for comment on LAND 129 Phase 4 to Defence.

Industry capability

“The final numbers and capabilities of the sUAS to be acquired under the first tranche of LAND 129 Phase 4 will be dependent on government approval, funding and final contract negotiations to be conducted following Gate 2 approval,” a spokesperson for Defence told Australian Defence Business Review at the end of October this year.

“In line with the government’s industry policy, LAND 129 Phase 4 was seen as an ideal opportunity to explore Australian industry capability in small unmanned aerial systems.

“Defence decided it was prudent to delay a portion of the acquisition and commenced a study into the capabilities of Australian industry. The two-tranche solution takes account of rapid technological advancements and provides potential opportunities for support from Australian industry.”

The examination of Australian industry’s capacity to support LAND 129 Phase 4 has been completed through an activity known as RPDE Quicklook 130.

(Quicklook activities deliver guidance on a particular topic by rapidly bringing together experts from industry and academia.)

“The results from this study are now being evaluated and will inform a multi‑year development program to support local innovation in the field of small unmanned aerial systems,” the spokesperson said.

Indeed, the second tranche of LAND 129 Phase 4 is “very much about learning how much can we do in Australia”, according to Colonel Andrew Jones, Director Aviation Program at Army Headquarters.

“We currently operate 20 Wasp AE systems, an American product sold by a local company here; it is a very good system, and it is probably best of breed at the moment, but we need to focus more on raising within Australia that component of the overall aerospace industry that we have had before,” COL Jones said at the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) conference at LAND FORCES 2016.

“Does every component need to be manufactured in Australia? No, probably not. Does it need to have a major Australian industry component? Absolutely.”

COL Jones was keen to stress the importance of “soldier proofing” the UAS, stating that Army wants to work closely with industry in order to explain exactly how tough the operating environment would be.

“Now is this the start of something big?” COL Jones asked in the presentation to the unmanned systems industry advocacy group. “There is plenty of opportunity; I can see no reason why we should not be globally competitive in Australian industry in the unmanned aerial systems space.”

Australian involvement

XTEK as the prime contractor has teamed up with California-based sUAS supplier AeroVironment and two other Australian companies – General Dynamics Mediaware in Canberra and Sentient Vision Systems in Melbourne – to offer the Wasp AE to the Australian Army and Special Forces.

While an “Australian solution” is being sought for the next tranche of LAND 129 Phase 4, in the words of the Chief of Army, XTEK is proposing a number of enhancements for the first tranche of the project that are regarded as Australian, according to managing director Philippe Odouard.

“A lot of it [talk of an Australian solution] was under the impression that the AeroVironment solution was a strictly American solution, which is really not the case; we are bringing a lot of value add into the solution,” he told Australian Defence Business Review.

“We bring not only the [air vehicle] and the control system, of course, but there are a number of other software packages that are actually developed here in Australia to be able to manipulate the images and the video stream, or retrieve them.”

The proposal put forward by the XTEK team includes an Australian Industry Capability (AIC) program commitment that is “actually quite considerable” said Odouard, whose appointment as XTEK managing director was announced in October.

“AIC has become a very important feature again,” he said. “Who knows what will happen in Tranche Two, but certainly we have shown that we can not only bring capability and the right support staff, equipment, test equipment and skills [but also] value adding in terms of software.”

Software packages

XTEK, Mediaware and Sentient intend to add considerable value to the capability being offered, and Australian industry content, through the supply and integration of imagery exploitation and movement detection software.

And XTEK itself would maintain the sUAS and provide through-life support for the fleet at facilities located in Canberra and South Australia.

Mediaware is set to provide a tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) capability.

“Our mission-tested ISR video processing software D-VEX will be used to perform processing, exploitation and dissemination of full-motion video collected in the field or post-mission back at base,” said Dr Kevin Moore, director of business development for ISR applications and solutions at Mediaware, in a statement provided to Australian Defence Business Review.

“Our software will complement the existing ground control and mission planning software of the tactical UAS, will provide analysis and reporting capabilities, as well as archiving and data management.

“Operating on ruggedised laptops or tablets, it will provide operators with the means to derive, manage and distribute critical intelligence gathered by the [unmanned aerial vehicle] for immediate tactical advantage.”

Mediaware’s full-motion video PED software is used by Army with the Shadow 200 tactical UAS, and by the Defence Science and Technology Group to support the Defence Experimentation Airborne Platform (DEAP) aircraft, Dr Moore stated.

“Mediaware has been working with best of breed Australian tech companies for over a decade, and we welcome the new export-orientated and innovation-led statements in the 2016 Defence White Paper,” said Dr Moore.

“Our PED software is standards-compliant and works with most platforms and sensors, so it is easily transitioned to any sovereign sUAS capability delivered in the future.”

Sentient’s Kestrel Land MTI software, which automatically detects movement in full-motion video, is currently in use with the Shadow system, and is used by the Royal Australian Air Force with the Heron UAS.

“Our software resides within the AeroVironment ground control station and RVT [remote video terminal], and we support and work with XTEK locally to provide the appropriate support services and training and rollout for our solution as a part of the overall product mix,” Sentient director of business development, strategy and partnerships Simon Olsen told Australian Defence Business Review.