Unmanned systems trends

Welcome to our annual Unmanned Systems issue, our yearly look at the embedded computing trends in military unmanned platforms – air, ground, and sea. We bring the Unmanned Systems issue to you every year prior to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Xponential show, as this magazine and its editorial staff attend the conference sessions and roam the exhibition floor during the show, which is held this year in Chicago.

While the show is more commercially oriented – to meet the demands of the growing commercial market for unmanned systems – military applications still play a major role, with embedded computing driving many of the solutions from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR] payloads to one of the hottest areas in the unmanned systems market – counter-UAS solutions.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on counter-drone systems today – ranging from military drone mitigation to small drones,” says Mike Blades, vice president, Americas, Aerospace, Defense, and Security for Frost & Sullivan, in our Special Report on counter-UAS technology. “Most of the efforts center on small drones because that’s proliferating the fastest.”

Tech for “countering the counter” is also developing fast: “There’s a sort of little arms race going on now – so many counter-drone systems and approaches are available,” Blades says in the article. “Drone makers are asking, ‘How do we counter that counter?’ and ‘What can we put on our drones so they can’t see or hear us?’”

Embedded computing plus RF and microwave components from companies such as MACOM are enabling many of these applications.

“The rise of UAV and counter-UAV technology is pushing UAV developers to ask some much-needed questions,” says Doug Carlson, senior vice president and general manager, RF & Microwave business unit, MACOM (Lowell, Massachusetts) in our MIL TECH TRENDS feature. “Detecting UAVs effectively at a distance in order to give the user time to react is turning into a very hot topic in the field of radar and RF.” How much RF and how much sensing is going into this counter-UAV problem? “UAVs are now a weapon system, both in defense and civil airspace, or civil domains, such that we have to come up with cost-effective and very reliable solutions to counter malicious attacks,” Carlson says.

The DoD also continues to invest in unmanned systems technology. For example, the Department of Defense (DoD)’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 request is funding the U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper UAS program in the amount of $1.025 billion, up from $741 million spent on the program in FY 2019. The base request includes the procurement of three MQ-9 aircraft, twelve ground-control stations, and continued modification of MQ-9s to the extended-range configuration.

A new program seeing an increase in funding in the FY 2020 request is the U.S. Navy MQ-25 Stingray Unmanned Carrier Aviation program, which is rapidly developing an unmanned capability to embark as part of the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) to conduct aerial refueling and provide ISR capability, according to the DoD. The program is expected to enter initial operational capability by FY 2024. The FY 2020 program funds production development, procures three demonstration aircraft, conducts engineering analysis, and initiates assembly of four developmental vehicles. Total FY 2020 funding requested is $671 million, up from $519 million spent in FY 2019.

According to the DoD’s FY 2020 budget release, $3.7 billion is requested for “Unmanned/Autonomous projects to enhance freedom of maneuver and lethality in contested environments.” In that arena, $927 million was requested to fund “artificial intelligence/machine learning investments to expand military advantage through the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) and advanced image recognition.”

For more on the FY 2020 DoD budget requests for unmanned systems and other platforms, check out the Budget Overview.

Much of the funding for new unmanned solutions and other platform upgrades such as avionics, radar, electronic warfare, and the like, will also be leveraging open architectures.

Along those lines, we have Part 2 of our 3-part article series on the tri-service convergence on a common open architecture through programs such as the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA). The article – titled “Development of the next-generation OpenVPX-based embedded system standard: A tri-service convergence of approaches: Part 2 of 3” – can be found on page 36. The authors are Mike Hackert of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), the Navy lead for SOSA; and his fellow leads at the Air Force (Dr. Ilya Lipkin, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center [AFLMC]) and the Army (Ben Peddicord, Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center [CERDEC]).

We hope to see you at Xponential in Chicago: Please visit us at the Military Embedded Systems booth (#4739).