Army, Academics Cite Progress on UAS, but Challenges Remain

Also includes developing counter-UAS defenses for the day when enemies also use unmanned aircraft to gather intelligence.

U.S. military and academic officials alike are working on a variety of technologies related to unmanned systems, with some of the largest issues being autonomy and sense and avoid, according to speakers at the AUVSI Pathfinder Chapter's latest conference.

Eric Edwards, director of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), said his directorate is working on taking more of the burden off the shoulders of soldiers and providing them with an "unfair advantage" on the battlefield.

That includes improving autonomy, such as through a demonstration conducted late last year where a Black Hawk helicopter was flown autonomously, performing a two-hour flight and landing safely in the designated area.

It also includes developing counter-UAS defenses for the day when enemies also use unmanned aircraft to gather intelligence. The Quick-Counter UAS Concept, or QUAC, recently wrapped up a 12-month effort at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to show how a nearly off-the-shelf Hellfire missile and Avenger radar system could detect and take out enemy UAS.

Academic speakers from a variety of universities with robotics-related programs said interest in UAS degrees is growing, with sense and avoid being a critical topic area.

"We're working on it at Mississippi State. We're going to partner with the FAA to figure out the methodologies for doing that, but if you were to ask me what the key research area is in unmanned aerial systems, I would have to tell you that it's see and avoid," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James Poss of Mississippi State University.

Job demand won't just come from UAS operators and pilots, said Charles Muse of the National Robotics Training Center, which is developing the production engineers who can actually build the robotic systems.

Citing AUVSI's new unmanned aircraft jobs report, he said many of the 70,000 jobs expected to be created within the first three years after UAS integration will be production engineers, although there is currently a shortage of them in the country.

Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer for aviation, said the Army's biggest accomplishment in the field in recent years is manned-unmanned teaming, a "game changer" that gives pilots and troops on the ground alike a better view of the battlefield.

It allows video data to flow from unmanned aircraft to manned ones while also providing more data to controllers on the ground, who can fly multiple types of UAS from the same ground station.

"It's the hunter and the hunting dog," Crosby said, "but guess what? Now the hunting dog has his own gun."

The second iteration of that system is now fielded to four AH-64D battalions and will expand to more through 2014. Eventually it could expand to other manned aircraft such as Chinooks and Black Hawks, Crosby said.

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Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch (ret.) now heads the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute (UTARI), which is researching ways to bring affordable technology to assist the elderly, disabled and wounded warriors.

UTARI's research includes developing robotic devices to help carry patients, enhanced prosthetic limbs that can adjust to the patient's bodies and even connect via neural networks, robotic guide dogs and pressure-sensitive robotic skin.

All of these developments could help give the disabled, elderly or wounded more autonomy, Lynch said.

"I want to get the conversation going in the direction of assistive robotics," he said, and UTARI is seeking partners to help continue the work.

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