By Ms Kari Hawkins ( Redstone)September 21, 2011
DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah -- Kiowa helicopter units deploying to theater will soon have another combat tool that will up their battle game.
Technology developed through the Program Executive Office for Aviation will allow Kiowa helicopters to get another view of the battlefield through the lens of unmanned aircraft systems. That technology -- known as Manned-to-Unmanned Teaming -- was on display last week at the Manned Unmanned System Integration Capability exercise as Kiowa helicopters and their pilots went through a series of demonstrations with unmanned aircraft in the airspace above Dugway Proving Ground.
"Using unmanned aircraft is like having an extra tool in the tool box," said one of those pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jim Wright.
Since the late 1990s, the Army has been looking at ways to team manned and unmanned systems.
"At that time, it was all still in the conceptual phase," Lt. Col. Kirk McCauley, product director for Armed Scout Fielded Systems, said.
"We were looking at controlling UAVs from the cockpit. But the technology wasn't there yet. There wasn't the technology to support the vision."
Size, weight and the slower speed of computer processing systems at the time made the technology cumbersome in a helicopter's cockpit.
"Technology over the past 10 years has grown by leaps and bounds," McCauley said. "Systems are lighter weight. Commercial technology can be adapted to our uses. Computer chips are miniature in size. Now we can build a system of technology that meets the vision the Army has had for years."
There are numerous benefits to pursuing manned-unmanned teaming between Army aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems, including better situational awareness, greater flexibility and responsiveness on the battlefield, continuance persistence on a target and improved surveillance capabilities.
But there's one benefit that speaks directly to the concerns of the Army's helicopter pilots.
"The number of rotary wing aircraft is limited. The footprint we are able to cover in any area is limited by those numbers," Wright said.
Those numbers are especially limited for the Kiowa. The last of the 2,200 Kiowa helicopters manufactured came off the Bell production line in 1989. Today's Army fleet includes only 330 Kiowa helicopters, which will be taken up to 368 through the Army's wartime replacement aircraft program. Since the Vietnam War, Kiowa helicopters have been upgraded with technologies that have kept them in the fight, and that have allowed the helicopters to excel most recently as combat changers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Unmanned aircraft provide an element on the battlefield that can grow the Kiowa helicopter's effectiveness larger than its own shadow.
"Our utilization is potentially more effective with the use of unmanned aircraft," Wright said. "They can help ensure that we are not sent into a situation where we are not needed. And, when we are sent in, they can provide situational awareness that allows us to formulate our course of attack before we get to the location. With the unmanned sending its image into our cockpit, we have better situational awareness instead of stumbling into the situation."
While deployed in Iraq, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charlie Parker flew Kiowa helicopters with unmanned aircraft. At the time, though, the technology only allowed him to communicate with ground crews who would convey to him the images generated by the unmanned aircraft.
"We call them talk ons. The ground operator would talk us onto the target. We were verbalizing verification that we were seeing the same thing as the unmanned aircraft once we got to a location," Parker said.
That situation -- known as level one interoperability -- caused the Kiowa pilots to rely on ground station operators for descriptions of the unmanned aircraft's images. At Dugway, Parker and Wright operated at level two, which utilized the manned-to-unmanned teaming technology to transmit the unmanned aircraft's images directly to the cockpit.
"Level two provides a down-link video," Wright said. "Level three allows the crew to take command of the sensor payload of the UAS. Level four allows the crew to take control of the vehicle. At this level, the crew can actually fire a weaponized UAS using its laser designator. And at level 5 the crew has full control of the UAS, including takeoff and landing."
There is no comparison between level one and level two interoperability, Parker said.
"A picture is worth a thousand words. At level one, the operator is trying to verbally describe for us what the situation is," Parker said. "Now we can visually see what the ground operator is talking about. Our visual verification reduces transmittal time and makes us more aware of what's going on."
The Kiowa helicopter updated with the MUM-T technology will be unveiled at the Association of the U.S. Army conference in Washington, D.C. in October. It will be part of the Army's first full spectrum combat aviation brigade that is in training now at Fort Campbell, Ky., and will soon be fielded and deployed, McCauley said.
"The Army's new full spectrum combat aviation brigade will have less Kiowa helicopters because of the number of manned aircraft that will deploy with it. The number of Kiowas will go to 21 versus 30, and the brigade will have eight UAVs." McCauley said.
"This CAB will show us if we have the balance right with the technologies, equipment and force structure as we put manned and unmanned systems in the same brigade. The unmanned system doing the training with the Kiowa is the Shadow."
One benefit of having manned and unmanned in the same brigade is that they are operating under the same commander. Different commanders managing different assets can lead to difficulties in getting assets assigned and to prioritizing requests.
"The commander owns the assets and decides what the priorities are so that assets are available for missions and aren't pulled off missions at the last minute for another priority," McCauley said. "You also have both (manned and unmanned) Soldiers working together on the same team. They eat together, live together, spend time together. This makes the team more proficient and effective because they know each other. They perform at a much higher level because they are in a habitual training relationship."
The capabilities of manned and unmanned systems provide a "unique set of capabilities. Unmanned systems bring persistence. They can fly at a higher altitude that provides a broader view of the situation," McCauley said.
"At the same time, the Kiowa scout pilot brings tactical curiosity to the team. And the Kiowa provides a closer view of situations and threats hidden in trees or palm groves. The UAV sees things the pilot can't see and the pilot sees things the UAV can't see. Together they work much more effectively."
Unmanned aircraft adds to the security for the Kiowa itself. Besides providing situational awareness before the Kiowa enters the area, unmanned aircraft can also provide additional security while the Kiowa is operating in the area.
"The unmanned aircraft is another big brother in the sky that's looking down on the situation and providing information," McCauley said. "It's like having a third person view of yourself. The unmanned aircraft provides a different perspective of the situation."
Even as Kiowa pilots gain benefits in the field from level two interoperability with unmanned systems, Wright said flight testing on a Kiowa prototype at level three will begin next year at the Redstone Test Center.