As the Army continues to develop its multidomain battle concept, manned-unmanned teaming will play a large role in operations going forward.
Despite multidomain battle being a new, updated vision to how the Army fights conflicts, the service has been conducting manned-unmanned teaming, or MUM-T, for some time, most notably involving Apache attack helicopter pilots being able to control MQ-1C Gray Eagles.
The retirement of the Army’s OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter left the service with a capability gap, so “the Army came up with [this idea that] we’re going to use our unmanned aerial systems to do that,” Chris MacFarland, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. director of Army programs, told C4ISRNET in an interview.
GA-ASI manufactures the Gray Eagle, as well as the Air Force variants the MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9 Reaper.
Apache aircraft have used MUM-T systems in battlefield situations with great success in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a spokesman from the Army’s Program Executive Office Aviation.
Moreover, the spokesman added that the AH-64E Apache is fully digitized with the latest technologies including level 4 man-unmanned teaming that allows Apache pilots to control flight path and payloads of unmanned aircraft system including the Gray Eagle. Level 4 MUM-T allows an Apache copilot gunner to not only receive live sensor imagery from an unmanned aircraft, but also take control of the sensor and weapons payloads and the aircraft navigation via waypoint management, according to Grant Taylor, engineering research psychologist for the Army Aviation Development Directorate.
The ability of a pilot in a cockpit to control these large — and armed — assets allows for a variety of advantages.
Given the sensitivities involved, Col. Paul Cravey, the Army Training and Doctrine Command Capability Manager for Reconnaissance and Attack at the Aviation Center of Excellence, offered little detail in how these teaming scenarios might be employed. He noted that Gray Eagles can run ahead of Apaches providing “triggers for targeting” and allowing the helicopter pilots to see something coming down range to provide a decision point to go to one place or another depending on where threats are.
“They can be taken forward by Apaches if you’re going to go so far that you exceed control linkages for the guy that’s controlling them,” he said in an interview. “Then maybe they would pair together to do that and maybe they would protect one another along with other DOD assets when they get into denied environments that one of that platforms could protect the other to perform its mission.”
One of the key differences between the Gray Eagle and its Air Force counterparts is that it is locally controlled as opposed to being controlled from a remote location via a satellite link halfway around the world. The Gray Eagle is a division asset that operates mostly at the tactical and operational level as opposed to the strategic, where Predators and Reapers generally operate.
The remote control is something the Army is looking to reevaluate.
Moreover, this command-and-control structure allows for users on the ground embedded with combat ground units to pass off control of the aircraft to Apaches and vice versa.
“MUM-T is being used from unmanned systems like the Gray Eagle to Apaches, as well as directly to ground users,” MacFarland said. “The distribution of the data is available. And I should say it’s actually to the exchange of data so it can go back and forth. Remember the Gray Eagle is up there at 15,000 to 20,000 feet; it’s got a significant propagation advantage over helicopters and ground-based elements.”
The Apache communities have done MUM-T with Gray Eagle in Afghanistan and Iraq and they’ve been pleased with it, MacFarland said, noting that they’ve also done MUM-T with the 185-pound, catapult-launched RQ-7 Shadow UAS because Shadows are embedded in the attack formations.
While acknowledging the community is still in the beginning stages of MUM-T, MacFarland noted GA-ASI wants to say engaged with Program Manager Apache’s MUM-T community to continue to evolve what the Gray Eagle can do and make the necessary modifications to the system.
He added the company is taking an internal look to see what they can do in this vein. To that end, one of the benefits of operating the Predator and Reapers is the company can take lessons learned the Air Force is gaining and bring that to the work being done with the Army.
For future concepts of operation in multidomain battle scenarios and operating environments going forward, Cravey pointed to an article he co-authored recently depicting what MUM-T could look like. The article depicted a battlespace in which users can share control of UAS and see a common picture providing unprecedented situational awareness.
“The Army is developing new ways to enhance how Soldiers shoot, move, and communicate on the battlefield. Technology already exists to share control of payloads, platforms, and even weapons from integrated handheld controllers not much larger than the computer tablets and phones we currently all carry,” the article said. “You won’t need a ground control station and a tactical vehicle’s worth of support equipment just to fly a UAS. From anywhere on the battlefield, you will be able to message, draw, and point and click your way through a live fire engagement from a single device just as if you were playing the Mobile Strike video game on your phone.”
The eventual goal, Cravey told C4ISRNET, noting there are current requirements document to this end, is to build agnostic control interfaces to allow soldiers — using a device on the ground, in a vehicle or aircraft — to share feeds on a variety of UAS to provide situational awareness and interoperability.
A fires soldier might be able to shoot a munition off an armed drone or use the laser on it to guide a munition to a target, Cravey said. An Apache pilot, he said, might be able — if they’re beyond the line of sight or control of the UAS — to take the UAS with them to a multidomain battlefield and control the asset downrange maneuvering it in support of their mission.
The Army, and military writ large, will require “synchronized cross domain teaming” in order to create windows in space and time against emerging threats, Cravey and his co-author Maj. Ariel Schuetz write.
Cravey and Schuetz indicate that one of the guiding principles of multidomain battle is formations “must be able to employ multidomain combined arms capabilities at the lowest practical echelons to enable dispersed operations, thereby reducing vulnerabilities to enemy massed fires while maintaining the ability to rapidly aggregate to mass at decisive points to create overmatch.”
Single-user control of multiple UAS
The next iteration of MUM-T for the Army will involve enabling a single user to control multiple UASs.
“The advantages that we would gain … if we build this scalable control interface and this architecture that supports that … is it’s going to allow us to have one professionally trained UAS operator that controls multiple platforms inside a [brigade combat team’s] BCT’s battlespace or inside that multi-domain battlespace,” Cravey said. “If you have a guy, for example, that’s stationed at a BCT and he’s an operator or maybe two operators and they’re controlling five UAS, they can take those UAS and they can hand them off to different commanders and disadvantaged users on the battlefield that don’t have the capability to launch and recover and monitor the health and maintenance of that things but they need it for a particular time.”
These types of multiple control architectures are several years off, however, as they’ll require substantial hardware upgrades. One Army research effort involves several programs feeding into a larger picture. The Army recently publicized the success of an effort called Supervisory Controller for Optimal Role Allocation for Cueing of Human Operators, or SCORCH, which allows a single operator to control multiple assets.
SCORCH, which was only simulated, is now going to feed into a higher simulation called Synergistic Unmanned Intelligent Teaming, or SUMIT, focusing on human and machine interface concepts, said Taylor of the Army’s Aviation Development Directorate.
The goal of SCORCH and similar efforts, Taylor said, is to learn if these concepts are feasible. They’re in the process of transitioning the intelligent autonomous behavior software as well as interface design concepts from the lab in California where SCORCH was to the SUMIT lab in Huntsville, Alabama, where it will be further evaluated and refined alongside three separate manned-unmanned teaming capabilities that are provided from industry partners.
Operational testing for these concepts is not scheduled at this time, Taylor said, adding that the effort is aimed at informing acquisition. He noted there is a possibility of fight demonstration potentially in the 2020 timeframe. They’re envisioning this type of solution to be fielded roughly in the 2035-2040 timeframe as it is being paired with the vertical lift platform or FVL.
In terms of what could be coming soon, Taylor offered a user interface or design that allows a user to jump from one aerial asset back and forth more seamlessly. Taylor said one thing his team realized after conducting interviews with operators is that the initial connection process, the establishment of that data link connection between the manned and unmanned platforms, in the current state of the art is difficult and time consuming and therefore once they establish that connection with a single vehicle and the operators will tend to stick with it.
This data link problem is the biggest impedance for fielding the capability in the near future, Taylor said. As such, Taylor noted they are in the process right now of developing a follow-on research effort that will look at addressing that problem specifically whether it is feasible to field a capability that’s equivalent to what is being simulated in SCORCH but could be fielded with much lesser requirements in terms of the communications networks.