UAS and associated payloads are being further developed to satisfy growing demands
In the UK, for example, efforts centre around demands to fuse UAV-led geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) capabilities into what the Ministry of Defence (MoD) terms the Single Intelligence Environment, which arose out of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and Joint Forces Command’s (JFC’s) long term strategy for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).
According to the JFC, the MoD must welcome what it terms radical and innovative solutions relating to UAS and the Single Intelligence Environment in order to generate and understand GEOINT. From this users can achieve, “world class decision-making on the basis of comprehensive understanding,” across the Contemporary Operating Environment (COE).
One MoD source explained to Mönch how the organisation must “transform” its approaches to information and intelligence, in order to avoid exploitation by enemy forces and maximise capabilities as armed forces continue to conduct high-tempo operations.
The MoD is working up multiple plans in the UAS domain to satisfy such requirements, including the procurement of next-generation PROTECTOR deep and persistent ISTAR capability to replace in-service MQ-9 REAPER in the 2030s and beyond, while in the short term, the British Army’s WK450 WATCHKEEPER programme is set to achieve Full Operational Capability in 2017.
Also tied into the MoD’s view of UAS in the Single Intelligence Environment is collaboration across the electromagnetic spectrum with persistent situation awareness, understanding, partnering and burden sharing, sources added while describing a long term plan to achieve a hybrid of, “transformational ISR capabilities,” across UAS.
Satisfying Elements of GEOINT Requirements
Ongoing efforts currently being investigated by industry, defence and security customers alike continue to focus on the miniaturisation of GEOINT-specific payloads in order to allow for their integration on board smaller and lighter UAS such as Airbus Defence & Space’s ZEPHYR HALE system or the High Altitude Pseudo Satellite (HAPS) technology.
Such an effort is currently being investigated by the company in line with the MoD, which announced on 17 August its intention to procure a third ZEPHYR-S UAS as part of a wider £13 million contract for the provision of extended GEOINT and communications capabilities at reach.
In February, the UK MoD announced plans to purchase the first two ZEPHYR-S platforms as part of an Operational Concept Demonstrator (OCD) effort to assess the system’s capabilities and explore its potential for use by the the armed forces and other government departments, official sources confirmed to Mönch.
According to British Defence Minister Michael Fallon, the ZEPHYR is capable of satisfying elements of the MoD’s GEOINT requirements in an expeditionary context with the hosting of airborne payloads operating at 70,000ft above ground level for up to 45 days and covering, “vast geographical areas at a much greater level of detail than ever before.”
The OCD will begin in 2017 and will feature interchangeable 5kg payloads capable of supporting MoD ground force elements with as yet undisclosed GEOINT capabilities. However, work is being undertaken to extend GEOINT payload capacity yet further on board the HAPS with the development of the ZEPHYR-T. Possessing a twin-tail, this variant could have the capacity to carry a 20kg payload.
Industry sources suggested to Mönch that this could include EO/IR; Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR); and Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) payloads as well as communications relay systems. Additionally, the MoD is understood to be considering payloads capable of penetrating cloud cover and other adverse weather conditions, as well as maritime radar variants.
On 5 May, reports emerged regarding the completion of a flight test of the ZEPHYR-T with the company admitting plans to manufacture a full-scale variant for flight envelope testing in 2018. This solution, should it pass an Initial Operational and Evaluation Test, could become operational with the UK Armed Forces in 2019, sources explained.
The concurrent operation of two HAPS would provide the ability to relay generated data beyond-line-of-sight (BLoS) back to tactical operations centres or headquarters components, as well as provide a 24/7 365° capability, with air frames handing over to one another before returning to base and refuelling, sources added.
Similar efforts are being undertaken by the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), which, according to defence sources, is currently considering how best to exploit the GEOINT capabilities of unmanned technologies.
Sources explained to MT how CANSOFCOM is looking at utilising UAVs for communications relay missions as well as processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) of GEOINT data, allowing for an enhanced incidence of situational awareness with the hybrid mix of manned/unmanned technology as well as full motion video (FMV) and additional ISR sensors.
One defence source associated with CANSOFCOM explained to MT: “This sort of concept falls neatly into how the wider Canadian Forces are now interested in extending their UAS capabilities yet further, particularly in the area of GEOINT and the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Targeting Acquisition System, both domestically and internationally.”
Areas of interest include generation of GEOINT across a variety of extreme environments, in particular within the Arctic Circle, as well as the development of advanced data management algorithms and secure ground-to-air communications for PED of the data. A contract for such a solution, based around a UAS, is expected to be announced in 2019 with the achievement of an IOC in 2021, sources added.
On a larger scale, NATO is set to receive its full complement of five GLOBAL HAWK Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) aircraft by the end of 2016, following their delivery to the AGS Main Operating Base (MOB) at Sigonella, Sicily/Italy, providing air, ground and support components with, “persistent wide-area terrestrial and maritime surveillance GEOINT capabilities in near real-time,” according to official sources.
The first vehicle, based on the Block 40 GLOBAL HAWK, completed its first flight in December 2015 and with a full complement of 600 personnel supporting persistent coalition operations globally from the air base, the AGS is scheduled to conduct a performance review ahead of an official handover to NATO in 2017.
According to programme officials, the AGS is equipped with the multi-platform radar technology insertion programme (MP-RTIP) ground surveillance radar sensor and is supported by a suite of line-of-sight (LoS) and BLoS long-range and wideband data links.
Ground Control Stations provide the connection between AGS ‘core’ systems and Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C2ISR) payloads, allowing multiple deployed and non-deployed operational users GEOINT reach-back capability from surveillance target areas.
Referring to Alliance GEOINT as well as national-level requirements, an official AGS source explained to Mönch: “Interoperable contributions in kind, such as national surveillance systems and data/communications, will also be made available to NATO and will complement AGS with additional surveillance capabilities. The composition of the AGS Core system and these contributions in kind will provide NATO with considerable flexibility in employing its ground surveillance capabilities. This will be supplemented by additional interoperable national airborne surveillance systems from NATO member countries, tailored to the needs of a specific operation or mission conducted by the Alliance.”
GEOINT requirements will be satisfied by ground control stations (GCS) each containing 22 operating stations, with at least 11 being operated at any one time in order to PED huge amounts of data being fed from the aircraft’s C2ISR sensor suite.
On 21 September, the NATO AGS Management Agency (NAGSMA), responsible for the programme, explained how AGS capabilities would be extended yet further with the integration of an automated target recognition and identification system.
According to a contract with Terma worth U$16.9 million, the technology will assist AGS operators in turning GEOINT data generated by the aircraft’s SAR into targeting information for dissemination to other airborne, maritime and ground-based assets for further interrogation or strike.
Due to be delivered to the programme in 2019, the technology will be integrated into the AGS MOB at Sigonella, with Terma’s Chief Commercial Officer, Steen Lynenskjold explaining: “We see this as a very important contract that enables Terma to bring several of our core competences within radar technology and signal processing in [to] play to benefit the operational value of the NATO AGS system.”
US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) GEOINT Capabilities
USSOCOM is attempting to provide GEOINT capabilities to the lowest tactical level in the form of its Soldier-Borne Systems programme, a solicitation for which was unveiled by the US DoD on 1 March.
According to the RfI, supporting standalone technology in a nano-UAS form factor (weighing no more than 150g) must be capable of networking ground-based operators with GEOINT data including, “incoming video and telemetry data in near real time while system sensors will support day and night imaging…..The system must be operable in light precipitation [and] have the ability to return to a predetermined location for loss-of-radio link.”
The UAS must be capable of communicating across a multitude of RF bands ranging from 355-380MHz; 1780-1850MHz; 2,025-2,110MHz; and 1,625-1,725MHz, with capability to be controlled at ranges out to 500m LoS. Additionally, the air vehicle must possess a mission endurance of at least 15 minutes, USSOCOM demanded.
Describing specific requirements for the collection and dissemination of GEOINT data, the RfI highlighted how the air vehicle, “…shall have, at ranges of 100m day (50m night), sufficient resolution for a trained operator to detect a man-sized target with a 90% probability; and at a range of 20m during the day, sufficient resolution for a trained operator to recognise a man-sized target and determine if armed with a rifle or not with a 90% probability.”
Options could include Prox Dynamics’ BLACK HORNET, used by British forces in Afghanistan for GEOINT operations at the lowest tactical level. This 1.6kg air vehicle includes a digital datalink and has a mission duration of 25 minutes. The platform is capable of generating live EO video feeds and still photography while flying in GPS or visual navigation modes.
The COE looks set to remain concentrated on the generation and PED of geospatial intelligence. Beyond the extension of capabilities of platforms such as ZEPHYR and NATO AGS, much work continues to be devoted to information management and integration. However, ongoing efforts in this area extend beyond the more traditional collection devices to include the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly in Israel, where GEOINT, OSINT, HUMINT and SIGINT is now being collated by automated algorithms in order to generate ‘pattern of life’ and targeting information for the security forces.
Once mature enough for proliferation across the international community, integration of ISR platforms and software with AI-type technology looks set to achieve significant advances in GEOINT capabilities for armed forces and security authorities.