By A. Rocco Olean, Technology Systems & Program Integration Directorate, NSRDECNovember 7, 2008
NATICK, Mass. -- On Sept. 19, members of the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration and Urban Technology Office completed a briefing requirement for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense Networks and Information Integration.
This milestone cleared the way for the NSRDEC- developed Small Unmanned Aerial Systems digital data link to transition to the production line.
What this means is that a familiar item to the military, the Raven UAS, will be receiving a much needed upgrade.
The Raven is a rucksack-portable UAS used for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, force protection and battle damage assessment. Manufactured by AeroVironment (Simi Valley, Calif.), the system has a 10 kilometer range and 90 minute endurance.
Originally developed by NSRDEC under the Pathfinder ACTD, Raven has evolved from a Combat Mission Needs Statement rapid fielding initiative to an Acquisition Category III Program of Record managed by Program Manager UAS, Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Ala.
As small UAS, such as Raven, have proliferated in the battlefield, demand for the systems has increased. This is due to Soldiers and Marines realizing the benefits of having an organic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability. Traditionally, ISR assets belonged to the higher echelons of the command structure; SUAS have pushed this capability down to the squad and team level, and in the view of some, have fundamentally changed the way the U.S. military fights.
The Raven relies on an analog downlink to provide the video and telemetry generated by the platform's Electro-Optical or Thermal Infrared sensors. EO sensors are used for daylight operations, while IR allows the system to operate at night. The analog downlink technology has been used for many years and is reliable and proven. When the Raven's analog link has a weak signal, the full motion video feed will gradually degrade until the system enters a loss of link state. This graceful degradation, along with the architecture's robustness and low transmission delay times, are analog's primary benefits. The drawback to analog is the video data is not compressed prior to transmission, so an analog video feed will consume far more bandwidth than its digital counterpart.
Over the past two years, members of NSRDEC's Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration Team have worked diligently to overcome the shortcomings of the analog communications architecture.
With the support of AeroVironment as an industry partner and prime contractor, a new digital data link was developed that provides for a four-times improvement in available channels, increased range, improved video quality, relay capability and encryption. The production of the prototype digital data links had to overcome numerous technical and regulatory hurdles.
Experimentation this fall at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., will put the DDL as a solid Technology Readiness Level 7 (system prototype demonstration in an operational environment). These planned tests will use the frequency range the Raven will be allocated in Iraq and provide an opportunity to perform extended range tests to determine DDL's performance envelope beyond the standard 10 kilometers.
Raven isn't the only system that is ditching analog data links. In February 2009, the Federal Communications Commission is mandating all commercial broadcast television switch from an analog to a digital broadcast format due to the advantages provided by a digital architecture.
As research and development for the SUAS ACTD at NSRDEC winds down, production planning activities at PM UAS are picking up.
The PM plans to build 25 systems based on the ACTD's design. Fifteen of the systems will be fielded to a Brigade Combat Team in Iraq for a Military Utility Assessment. The remaining ten will be used for developmental testing.
Funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense ISR Task Force was instrumental in achieving the PM's rapid fielding objectives along with the initial buy of DDL-capable Ravens.
The Army's Operations Group (G-3) is searching for a BCT willing to take on the task of testing out the newest Raven variant in Iraq.
The PM is already planning for a successful outcome. With an Army Acquisition Objective of 2,182 Raven systems, a strategy is in the works for a complete retrofit of the Raven fleet to digital data links.