Flying unnoticed over the busy Gulf of Oman, a little Aussie UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) spots a suspicious vessel. Maybe it’s just a trading show of the type that has sailed these waters for centuries. Or maybe it’s carrying drugs, weapons or terrorists. Live video from the UAV is examined aboard a distant Australian warship where it will be decided if a closer look is justified.
This was the first ever operational deployment of Royal Australian Navy UAVs, with four Insitu ScanEagle air vehicles and their operators aboard HMAS Newcastle during her Operation Manitou deployment mission to the Middle East last year.
During that time, the ScanEagles flew more than 200 hours, either on their own or in conjunction with the ship’s MH‑60R Romeo Seahawk helicopter. These simultaneous operations, or ‘manned-unmanned teaming’, were another first for the Navy.
It would be nice to report that at least one of the vessels spotted by the ScanEagle was found to be carrying large quantities of drugs or guns, as has occurred in interceptions by Australian ships in earlier Middle East deployments.
But although they did observe numerous vessels, LTCDR Ben Crowther, officer in charge of the Navy Unmanned Aerial Systems Unit (NUASU) said they produced none of the big drug busts in what was a relatively quiet patrol in that respect. He said this first ever operational deployment was conducted under an operational evaluation plan to capture data and learn all the lessons the Navy needs for when it goes shopping for unmanned aerial systems under project SEA 129 Phase 5.
These will be embarked first aboard the new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), and then major warships such as the DDGs, Future Frigates and LHDs.
With a decision now made on a preferred designer for the OPVs, the Navy can plan for acquisition of a suitable UAS and how it could best be employed from the new small vessels.
The chosen German Lurssen PV80, is a 1,700-tonne 80-metre vessel substantially larger than the Armidale class patrol boats they will replace, and features a large helicopter deck – but no hangar – with plenty of space for UAS infrastructure. The Defence Integrated Investment Plan says new maritime tactical unmanned aircraft will be progressively introduced over the decade to 2025-26, improving ship situational awareness over a greater area and complementing other sensors and systems.
In May, CASG issued a request for information (RFI) for a Maritime Tactical Unmanned Air System (MTUAS) for the OPVs under Project SEA 129 Phase 5 Stage 1. The follow-on Stage 2 will see the acquisition of MTUAS for the major surface combatants such as DDGs, Anzacs and Future Frigates, and possibly the LHDs. Potential contenders for the requirement likely include the Saab Skeldar V200 or V350, Schiebel Camcopter S-100 and Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout.
Indeed, there may even be a mixture of different UAS types across the different ships.
For example, there are two variants of Fire Scout, with the smaller (but out of production) MQ-8B now deployed operationally aboard US Navy Littoral Combat Ships. The larger MQ-8C, based on the widely used Bell 407 helicopter, has completed trials but hasn’t yet deployed. As well as sensors, both can carry a range of weapons.
But for the RAN, the sole purpose of a UAS at this stage is to be a platform for a sensor or sensors, and to provide data back to where it’s needed.
Since the early days of unsteady low-res video, the pace of platform and sensor development has been frantic. “The rate of progression is astounding,” said LCDR Crowther. “No sooner do I get used to what’s out there on the market and get comfortable with the sensors available, and then a whole new range comes out or they have miniaturised a manned aircraft sized radar which can now be carried on a S-100 and give you a range of 100 nautical miles. That stuff is happening monthly. It will almost certainly change the future of the Fleet Air Arm.”
The rate of change and advance has been so great that NUASU, initially stood up as the Navy UAS Development Unit with five personnel in 2013 and based at HMAS Albatross at Nowra, NSW, is set to be commissioned as a Navy squadron. The Navy is a relative latecomer to modern UAS, although it has had long engagement with unmanned systems, starting with the Jindivik remote-controlled target aircraft back in October 1950. Jindivik remained in service right up to 1998. There was also the experimental Turana (1971-79), and the short-lived Kalkara (1998-2008) systems. The Australian Army started using UAVs in 2003 and subsequently flew ScanEagle for 45,000 hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
LCDR Crowther’s passion for UAS stems from his 2012 deployment to the Middle East as a staff officer to the Australian Joint Task Force 633 deputy commander. That was the year when seven Australian soldiers died in Afghanistan. “It made sense to me that if we can get the robots to fight or do that dangerous stuff and save the lives of our soldiers as a result, then we don’t need to be sending notification teams out to our soldier’s families,” he said.
The US Navy took an early interest in UAS, signing a deal with Insitu, now a subsidiary of Boeing, in 2005 and now has extensive experience of operating Scan Eagle from ships.
“In mid-2012 we put up a case to the Chief of Navy that there should be a bit more of a deep dive into this,” LCDR Crowther said. The Navy UAS Development Unit was stood up in early 2013 and Navy took over the Army’s Scan Eagle contract with Insitu Pacific. “The intent early on was to establish a basic understanding of UAS operations, develop orders, instructions and procedures on how do we do this stuff safely,” he said. “It was about making Navy an informed customer.”
Beyond maritime surveillance, NUASU envisages a very diverse range of possible roles for the eventual capability. For surface warfare, a UAV can partake in the actual targeting and subsequent damages assessment. For amphibious warfare, a UAV perhaps operating from one of the Canberra-class LHDs could conduct pre-assault reconnaissance and provide overwatch of the landing force including special forces.
A UAV could also provide targeting for naval fire missions, observe and correct fires and conduct subsequent bomb damage assessment, and conduct mine clearance operations. Then there’s reconnaissance for humanitarian and disaster relief operations, search and rescue and range clearance. In maritime interdiction operations, a UAV can conduct stand-off observation of the target vessel, especially on the blind side away from the interdicting vessel.
In order to learn the basics, NUASU initially operated a small quadcopter. This is what’s termed a Tier 1 capability and these small UAVs may still yet end up in the Navy inventory to support boarding operations, conduct mast and hull inspections and even assist in man overboard incidents. LCDR Crowther said their ultimate objective wasn’t to replace any of the manned capabilities. “What we aim to do is supplement or complement them, enable them to be better at their job by taking some of the load, some of the lower priority.
“While the ScanEagle air vehicle itself is small and potentially lends itself well to operations aboard small vessels such as the OPV, it’s catapult and Skyhook recovery infrastructure gives the system a large footprint. We therefore support the much greater capability of the manned aircraft.
“MH-60R has the world’s best sensor suite on board, clearly we can’t compete with that with a 22-kilogram drone,” he added. “Our version of manned-unmanned teaming is concurrent tasking. We might put the MH-60R up, it does a sweep of the area, works out what the maritime operating picture (MOP) is, and then allocate the task to us. Then the MH-60R can go and do higher priority tasks or it might be out of fuel or crew endurance. (With a UAS) we can provide persistent ISR capabilities.”
With the proliferation of small UAS across the community, there’s a perception that these are not much more than useful novelties. LCDR Crowther said as they examined procedures and regulations, it became obvious that what they were operating was a core aviation product, which required that they be operated by trained personnel subject to the same qualification and crew rest requirements as those flying Navy helicopters. He said unlike manned aircraft, it was expected UAVs would crash, therefore UAS needed to be flown in such a way as to minimise danger to people on the ground and in the air, as well as to facilities.
Although a small UAV, ScanEagle can fly 100 nautical miles (175km) at 10,000 feet, so a mid-air collision could seriously damage another aircraft. “Our regulations have to account for that and as a result they are based heavily on risk management,” he said. “We have proved that works because we have lost four and we have never hurt anyone or any building, so our operational controls are effective.” The crew rest requirement has ruled out cross-training of personnel on ships, as their onboard watch duties are incompatible with aviation requirements.
The current UAS manning model is a trained pilot, an aviation warfare officer or aircrewman as mission commander, and four others cross-trained as UAS remote pilots, mission payload operators and maintainers. That could evolve as work proceeds on how to best process data from advanced sensors and disseminate it through the fleet.
Aboard HMAS Newcastle (which returned from its first UAS embarked deployment on December 3), the raw video feeds went into the ship’s combat management system (CMS) for assessment in the operations room. “We are not sure if that’s the best way to do it; it might be that we need to alter our crew model to process radar and ESM data in the ground control station,” LCDR Crowther said.
“That would entail having a sensor operator like the back-end guy in a Romeo. A Romeo is capable of processing all its own data and it just sends processed tracks back to the ship. At the moment we are very reliant on the ship and we just point the sensor in the right direction.”
To further develop its UAS capabilities the Navy decided in mid-2015 to buy a pair of ScanEagle systems outright, each with ground stations and four air vehicles making a total of eight, at an all up cost of $15 million. It also started looking at UAS capable of carrying more complex and diverse sensors, such as radars and ESM (electronic support measures) packages.
Two systems were tried out, the Schiebel S-100 rotary wing UAV, and the Insitu Integrator fixed wing, the commercial variant of the US Navy and Marine Corps’ RQ-21 Blackjack. “It piqued our interest in rotary,” he said. “We had been flying the ScanEagle for a while and we had a pretty reasonable understanding of the strengths and weaknesses, limitations and operational capabilities and potential of those systems. But we had no understanding of what small rotary platforms might do, despite the fact that Navy does helicopters as our core aviation capability.”
In December 2016, Austrian firm Schiebel won the ensuing tender for one system comprising two air vehicles, two ground stations and two years of support under the non-capitalised Navy Minor Program (NMP)1942. Schiebel S-100 UAVs are widely used by a range of customers for civil and military applications in the US, China, Russia, Pakistan, Canada, Germany and Italy.
The arrival of the Navy-owned S-100s in Australia had been delayed because of the Navy requirement that they be powered by less flammable JP5 fuel rather than avgas, but it was expected by the end of 2017. In the meantime, the Navy continued its trials using contracted aircraft and in March, a Schiebel-owned S-100 crashed inside the Beecroft Air Weapons Range at Jervis Bay in NSW while conducting flying conversion training for RAN personnel. That apparently stemmed from a mechanical control failure and resulted in a bushfire which burned out a couple of hectares of the range.
Recovery of the mostly burnt-out wreckage proved to be a delicate operation as the area contains substantial quantities of unexploded ordnance, while local media reports sensationally dubbed the errant UAV as a “million dollar defence drone.”
Fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAS each have advantages and disadvantages. ScanEagle can stay aloft in excess of 12 hours, is efficient and covert, but it has a small payload of a single sensor, albeit very good ones. That’s either the EO900 TV camera with 170‑times optical zoom for daytime use, or the MWIR2 IR system for day and night use.
The latest payload add‑on is Australian firm Sentient Vision Systems’ ViDAR (visual detection and ranging) which gives ScanEagle a capability for broad area maritime surveillance. ViDAR uses a secondary high resolution camera to scan 180 degrees along the aircraft path, overlaying its images with subsequent images to discern persistent pixel anomalies. A distant small wooden boat would not be noticed by the standard camera, but would be seen by ViDAR which can then cue it for a closer look by other sensors.
“It is a bit of a game changer for us,” LCDR Crowther said. “Clearly it’s subject to environmental conditions again because it works in the visual spectrum. On clear day it gets reliable hits beyond 15 nautical miles (25km). Sentient says their analysis shows it increases the search effectiveness of a ScanEagle about 80 times. That is mind blowing.”
Sentient Vision says ViDAR can scan a swathe 20 nautical miles (35km) wide, searching an area of more than 13,000 square nautical miles in 12 hours. It can detect wooden and rubber boats travelling at low and high speed, people in the water, and even submarine pericopes, and distinguish between them. One insider said the future for Australian industry in the growing UAS sector was more in developing the smart sensor packages than the actual platforms.
But for a small 22 kilogram UAV, ScanEagle has a large ship deck footprint which can be challenging on small ships. It requires a pneumatic catapult to launch, and a crane‑like skyhook which catches the wing, to land. That amounts to around 2,500 kilograms of infrastructure.
The Navy considered putting ScanEagle on Armidale class patrol boats, but concluded the required launch and recovery equipment posed an unacceptable risk of adding to hull cracking problems. The Schiebel S‑100 is more complex and much bigger than ScanEagle and has around half the endurance. But being a helicopter, it has a negligible deck footprint beyond its rotor blade diameter. Further, it can carry a payload of up to 50 kilograms which could include multiple sensors, and it even has sufficient power output to run a small radar.
The aircraft has a maximum takeoff weight of 200 kilograms, a maximum speed of 120 knots and a 130nm (220km) beyond line of sight capability. While the two systems have very different deck footprints, each makes similar claims to real estate in other areas of the ship, specifically bunks for the embarked crew. “The real estate thing is a real challenge,” LCDR Crowther said. “What we learned early on was that we were never going to get more than about 5‑6 bunks on a ship, and even that’s a struggle on some.”
With all these new capabilities comes yet another challenge – integrating their product into ship onboard combat management systems. For the ScanEagle deployment aboard HMAS Newcastle, Thales performed the integration into the FFG’s Australian Distributed Architecture Combat System (ADACS). In 2015 there was a successful demonstration of network integration into the Saab 9LV combat system, so integration of UAS onto the Anzac frigates shouldn’t be too difficult.
But it’s not just the Navy interested in maritime tactical UASs. In 2016, NUASU conducted a three‑month trial deployment of six ScanEagles to Christmas Island to find out just what was required to move, operate and support UAS operations far from home.
On Christmas Island, this capability was demonstrated to Australian Border Force officers. “They wanted some sort of understanding of what a drone could offer,” LTCDR Crowther said. During that deployment, NUASU also lost one of its air vehicles through engine failure about two kilometres off the island. Although the ScanEagle has very good glide characteristics, the onboard computer decreed it couldn’t make it back to land, so it was turned into the wind and ditched. “Sometimes they float, sometimes they don’t,” he said. “This one didn’t!”
One other has also been lost, a testament to Murphy’s Law – if anything can go wrong it will – and its corollary, that this will surely occur during the VIP demonstration. Mostly ScanEagle recovery on the sky hook works fine but not this time. Just before the rope, a gust of wind hit the aircraft, its autopilot didn’t have time to correct and it stalled and crashed, smashing into the ground right in front of the onlookers.
UAS also crash for reasons other than the inevitable mishaps of flight. In December 2012, Iran displayed a ScanEagle which landed on its territory, with various claims that it may have electronically hijacked the aircraft. It remains unclear if that was the cause, or if the aircraft crashed of its own accord, but the US denied it had lost any aircraft. Whatever happened, Iran now produces its own small UAS called the Yasir which bears an uncanny resemblance to ScanEagle, and these have been spotted flying over Syria.
When UAVs crash, mostly no‑one gets hurt but a very rare exception occurred in May 2012 in Korea when a Schiebel S‑100 crashed into the ground control station vehicle during operations for the Korean military, killing a Schiebel engineer and injuring two South Koreans. Media reports said the Korean military was investigating whether this could have been caused by North Korean jamming of GPS.
This article was featured in the November-December edition of Australian Defence Business Review.