DoD unmanned systems report maps out technology development for next 25 years

A 25-year roadmap for unmanned systems released by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) earlier this year recommends more open standards and commonality in technology.

The report, titled “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap,” lays out predictions, plans, and recommendations for technology development and combat strategies for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), Unmanned Ground Systems (UGSs), and Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMSs). To read it from start to finish, visit http://www.defense.gov/pubs/DOD-USRM-2013.pdf.

Recent budget cuts have forced a drive toward commonality across DoD platforms and this roadmap confirms that trend, calling for more use of “open standards and interface definitions” to mitigate the interoperability challenges related to “unmanned systems communication infrastructures.” The report says that enforcement of open standards and “government-owned data rights will promote the leveraging of common components and facilitate reuse among heterogeneous unmanned system platforms.”

In other words, suppliers that produce Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) hardware and software are well-positioned to weather the current economic challenges in the military market and even thrive in the long run as embedded signal processing and open architecture-based computing solutions will likely dominate unmanned system payload development. Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) payloads already play a large role in current DoD UAS operations and that is likely to continue. For more on this see our Mil Tech Trends article this issue, titled “UAV ISR payloads demand lighter weight, faster processing” on page 36.

Last fall Ron Stearns, Research Director at G2 Solutions, told me he’d call the next 10 years “the sustainment decade” for unmanned aircraft as the DoD is filling out its unmanned aircraft fleets from large to small, keeping them going through sensor, communications, and weapons upgrades. This roadmap confirms that, stating that DoD inventories and funding of UAS platforms “are expected to have a gradual upward trend through 2015 and then trend downward in 2016 and beyond.”

These trends are noticeable in the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 DoD budget request. For example, with the Air Force Global Hawk RQ-4 program the DoD is looking to fund development efforts for the RQ-4 Block 30, Block 40, ground stations, and Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion programs in the FY 2015 request. RQ-4 Block 30 consists of a multi-intelligence suite for imagery and signals intelligence collection while the Block 40 has multi-platform radar technology for Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging, and moving target detection. The DoD also decided to restore the 21 Block 30 systems and continue funding of modernization efforts for the platform to operate beyond FY 2023. The FY 2015 program also funds upgrades to system hardware and performance-based logistics support for the RQ-7 Shadow and procurement of upgrades, training, and contractor logistics support for the RQ-11. For more on the FY 2015 budget request see the bonus section on page 10.

DoD inventories and funding of UGSs are expected to decrease in 2014, according to the roadmap, then gradually increase in 2016 and onward as new programs of record are fielded.

Funding for UMSs, which consists of Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs), and their related payloads and support systems, will grow in the long-term – especially as the DoD orders more Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs), which will be supported by UMSs.

UUVs got quite a bit of press recently in their search for the missing Malaysian airliner – specifically a UUV from BlueFin Robotics. They’re also getting press from Military Embedded Systems this month in our Special Report, titled “Unmanned underwater vehicles modernize U.S. Navy’s sea-mine-hunting capabilities” on page 24 this month, which also has more information on how UUVs are searching for the lost passenger jet.

While military programs, and DoD ones especially, dominate unmanned system use and development today that will probably not be the case 25 years from now. Commercial applications as well as civilian and consumer use of unmanned technology will eventually surpass that of the military. In fact the morning I wrote this column, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google purchased UAS-maker Titan Aerospace, allegedly beating out Facebook on the deal. According to the story they are looking to unmanned aircraft to beam Internet access to remote parts of the globe not covered by cell towers and phone wires.

The roadmap authors say commercial use of unmanned systems will be good news for U.S. taxpayers because increased commercial use of unmanned system technology could “reduce the price point of these systems for the military.” A larger market for unmanned system payloads is good news for embedded COTS suppliers too.

John McHale jmchale@opensystemsmedia.com