Flight into the future
Raytheon helps shape the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles
Drones are getting smart. But not too smart.
As the age of hulking, plane-sized unmanned aircraft gives way to a future of nimble, cheaper drones that can swarm, Raytheon is creating artificial intelligence systems to manage take-offs and landings, operate in groups and perform other functions – but always with a human being in control.
“Right now, it takes ten people to control one drone,” said Raytheon engineer Jim Crowder, who is helping to pioneer artificial intelligence technologies. “What we’d like to get to is one guy controlling ten drones.”
Artificial intelligence is just one of the critical technologies that Raytheon, building on decades of experience in propulsion, guidance, aerodynamics, communications and sensors, is developing for future unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. The company also produces forward-looking drones like the tube-launched Coyote and the Silver Fox expeditionary system, along with next-generation UAV control systems like advanced mission control for the Global Hawk, Triton and MQ-8 Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter that recently deployed on the USS Coronado Littoral Combat Ship.
These technologies will help realize two important objectives of the Department of Defense’s Third Offset Strategy: To enhance the human-machine connection through technology, and to create overmatch – the overwhelming power to defeat adversaries, like bringing a gun to a knife fight.
“When most people…hear me talk about [artificial intelligence], they immediately start to think of Skynet and Terminator,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work in a speech to the Atlantic Council. “I think more in terms of Iron Man.”
Which means Jarvis, the virtual servant that helps Tony Stark run the armored suit in Iron Man movies. “A machine to assist a human where the human is still in control in all matters, in all matters, but the machine makes the human much more powerful and much more capable,” Work said.
DARPA, the Department of Defense’s advanced research arm, chose Raytheon to help lead development of autonomous technology that will allow UAVs to work together in challenging conditions.
“The concept is to create heterogeneous teams of unmanned aircraft,” DARPA Program Manager Jean-Charles Lede told Aviation Week in June.
Cheaper by the dozen
As important as artificial intelligence, there is another factor critical to the future of drones: cost.
“UAVs have not been volume production items,” said John Hobday, business development lead for Raytheon's unmanned systems division. “It’s pretty close to onesies and twosies. Nobody had looked at turning these things into something you can actually produce in quantities and at a low cost.”
Until now. “We have brought the Coyote to a lot of our smart engineers and identified how we take this specialized touch labor out of it, make it perform better and drive its cost down,” Hobday said. “”We can take a UAV that is typical of so many – they’re expensive – and take 50, 60, 70 percent of the cost out of it by simple engineering.”
That’s particularly important with Coyote, which is sent by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fly around for extended periods within hurricanes, gathering a wealth of data. Coyote has also been adopted by the U.S. Navy’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology, or LOCUST, which will require drones to operate with enough autonomy to re-configure a flying group if a swarm of drones is attacked.
Those missions can be tough. Yet a UAV produced at a much lower cost than traditional drones “becomes so inexpensive that you can lose the UAV,” Hobday said. “A highly capable system that is very inexpensive.”
Beyond the UAVs and the technologies behind them, Raytheon trains and qualifies all U.S. Army unmanned aircraft operators, including about 2,000 operators of the Gray Eagle. The U.S. Army operates a fleet of roughly 130 MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft, which can carry multiple advanced sensors and operate for extended periods at medium altitude.
The training is conducted at an Army facility in the Huachuca Mountains foothills in southeastern Arizona. Classes take about 25 weeks; students take classroom instruction before moving onto flight training, which is broken down into simulation and live flying. About 60 percent of the instruction is in flight simulators; the remaining 40 percent is piloting real Gray Eagles.
"We’re changing the face of modern warfare,” said Nate Olander, Gray Eagle task lead. “Our simulators provide training and realism, allowing soldiers to face and work through a multitude of emergency situations.”
A matter of control
The Navy has also adopted Raytheon’s Universal Ground Control Station for drones. By moving to a universal control interface, the Navy hopes to reduce the required number of UAV operators by giving them the ability to operate multiple unmanned platforms simultaneously.
In fact, Raytheon’s mastery of unmanned controls extends across the U.S. military, including common control systems for the most advanced unmanned vehicles.
The Fire Scout unmanned helicopter control system, a proven technology now being upgraded with cyber hardening, is one example. Fire Scout is providing the foundation for the Navy Common Control System, which will enable sailors to remotely pilot multiple air, surface and sub-surface vehicles from a single workstation.
Common control stations offer cost savings for acquisition and training; and mission flexibility. They will operate different types of platforms – airborne, surface and subsurface – simultaneously. They provide payload control, the ability to collect and disseminate mission data and mission management of information such as weather, threats and air traffic control.
“Raytheon’s iPad app simulated launch, recovery and the taxi of a UAV with an app that took 6-8 weeks to build,” said Bill Kyker, technical director of unmanned systems at Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. “It can fly a vehicle by touch and moving waypoints.”
That’s Raytheon’s advantage: the variety of technologies it offers for UAV manufacture, operations and development. Among the latest is its leading expertise in cyber-hardening, a critical effort to ensure the security of UAV operations for the U.S. and its allies.
This document does not contain technology or technical data controlled under either the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations or the U.S. Export Administration Regulations. E16-4DNT.