YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz. — U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground was the epicenter of the Army’s future force in Project Convergence 20 and 21 and continued to support the Army Futures Command’s campaign of learning this year.
The first Project Convergence Technology Gateway was held at Yuma Proving Ground by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command over the course of five weeks in September and October.
“Tech Gateway is a portal for non-traditional partners and any novel innovations they have for Army needs,” said Rick Deoliveira, Technology Gateway chief of operation. “We saw about 260 different industry solutions that were technically reviewed by our DEVCOM engineers. The industry partners here are the cream of the crop.”
“Gateway is the first of the activities of Project Convergence 22,” added Maj. Gen. Miles Brown, DEVCOM Commanding General. “It’s not just a gateway to Project Convergence, it’s a gateway into Army experimentation on the systems and technical side. It gives us the opportunity to have a collaboration with industry in an austere environment that is instrumented and staffed with test officers that are certified to provide good analysis.”
Project Convergence 22 is interested primarily in utilizing the successful experiments of Project Convergence 20 and 21 in an operational environment with international partners. YPG’s infrastructure is intended to support developmental testing of equipment: thus, perfectly suited for Technology Gateway’s ambitions while the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin and the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton — both in California — host the operational aspects of this year’s campaign of learning.
“There were many places we could have gone to, but at the end of the day Yuma had the capability and experience we needed,” said Deoliveira. “Yuma carried out Project Convergence 21 last year, and we really felt that they had the facilities and personnel to make a difference for us here.”
YPG’s vast size includes nearly 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace. The proving ground’s clear, stable air and extremely dry climate combined with an ability to control a large swath of the radio frequency spectrum makes it a desired location for the type of testing Tech Gateway was interested in: counter-unmanned aircraft solutions, extending network access, and flying autonomous and semi-autonomous aircraft. YPG’s vast institutional UAS and counter-UAS testing knowledge and the presence of a wealth of other infrastructure meant for other sectors of YPG’s broad test mission were utilized to support the aviation evaluations: YPG is home to things like technical and tactical targets, as well as generator and combined maintenance shops.
“This is early technologies we would like to bring out of the lab and get it into the dirt to see how it works,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd, Chief Innovation Officer of Army Futures Command. “The beauty of that is we really iterate in the prototyping stage and demonstration stage at the same time we are writing what could be a future requirements document.”
Facilitating the ambitious demonstrations and experiments took months of planning.
“We worked with our DEVCOM partners diligently on a day-to-day basis to make sure that we’re capturing all requirements for the industry participants,” said David Bates, Cross Functional Integrator for YPG’s Air Combat Systems Directorate. “Every day our personnel at Yuma Test Center set up a ready operational environment for DEVCOM and industry to execute their missions.”
Among the remarkable firsts achieved at YPG during Project Convergence 21 was the autonomous flight of a legacy UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, albeit with a human pilot aboard as a precaution. This year, a fully autonomous UH-60 dubbed Alias engaged in complex simulated missions across YPG’s vast ranges without a safety pilot onboard, utilizing low level maneuvers that traditional pilots use in combat areas.
“The last time an autonomous vehicle similar to this flew at several thousand feet high because the safety aspect was not as mature as this,” said Scott Crane, systems engineering and technical assessment contractor with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “We wanted to show that we could do the same survivability that real pilots do.”
In one scenario, the aircraft carried a sling load of a heavy bundle to one location prior to being loaded with supplies needed at a different location miles away. While en route, the autonomous Blackhawk’s destination came under notional enemy attack that prevented a safe landing.
“They re-tasked it with just one little click to go further out and wait until the area was clear,” said Crane.
Finally landing, the scenario further imagined that a critically-wounded Soldier from the recent attack had to be evacuated to a hospital immediately, and no other aircraft were available. The testers re-tasked the autonomous Blackhawk to fly a realistic casualty mannequin to a simulated field hospital.
“To be able to autonomously launch an aircraft in all weather in a contested, hot threat environment and deliver key, critical supplies to our Soldiers in need is huge for us,” said Todd. “We don’t want weather or the enemy to be an impediment for us from achieving that in the future.”
The size of the payloads and complexity of the missions were both unprecedented for a fully autonomous UH-60.
“YPG has the facilities, restricted airspace, and test officers that we require to do this safely, because it has never been done before,” said Crane.
Whether facilitating complex autonomous flight or kinetic defeats of unmanned aircraft, YPG personnel ensured safe and seamless operations for all participants.
“The vast experience that YPG personnel possess has been the key to the success of this exercise as it’s happening,” said Bates. “YPG’s support of Project Convergence is leveraging the knowledge we have attained over the years working both with industry and the government to make sure we are meeting the requirements set out for us and facilitating industry testing here. YPG from the bottom up has been outstanding in facilitating this effort.”