by Chuck Wullenjohn
YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz., (Army News Service, may 15, 1998) -- Advanced electronics technology, which has resulted in the miniaturization of computers, television cameras, navigation systems, and much more, has allowed the military to develop small remotely piloted aircraft capable of taking over the jobs formerly performed by very expensive manned aircraft.
Known as unmanned aerial vehicles, these small aircraft dispense with the pilot, allowing the aircraft to be built more cheaply and avoiding the huge costs of training and maintaining the skills of a human pilot.
These small electronic systems can navigate the UAV to a point of interest, look down on enemy positions, and relay the information back to a military commander in a rear area.
UAVs have been under development for years, and recently at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, in the Arizona desert, the U.S. Navy sponsored a demonstration of a new type of UAV, one able to take off and land vertically.
"The world of unmanned aerial vehicles is now reaching the state of stable maturity," said Dick Albert, a test director at Yuma Proving Ground. Military systems of all types and sizes, including UAV prototypes, are regularly tested at the sprawling 1300 square mile installation, which is adjacent to the Colorado River.
"First and foremost, UAVs enable us to save lives," Albert explained. "With today's technology, UAVs can perform tasks that used to require a man or woman as a pilot. Especially when missions are hazardous, it's a much better idea to risk a machine rather than a human life."
Unmanned aerial vehicles can perform a wide variety of military roles. These include providing detailed area surveillance and reconnaissance, performing battle damage assessments, identifying targets, relaying communications, conducting chemical or nuclear monitoring, observing naval gunfire support, and much more.
Current operational UAVs are typically launched and recovered from a ground station or ship, often requiring a great deal of area or specialized equipment. According to Navy officials, there is an immediate need for UAVs to fly from confined areas, such as the decks of seagoing ships.
And the decks of ships, unlike the ground, are generally moving, pitching, and rolling. It's a tough challenge to land a UAV on a small platform, and for that reason, the Navy has decided to see what the world has to offer in UAVs that might meet that test.
"The current Navy UAV, the Pioneer, has been around since 1985," said Lt. Cmdr. Tom Stuart of the Navy's UAV program office. "It has 17,000 flight hours on it, and has proven an excellent asset, but it has definite limitations, mainly from inclement weather. Also, it must be launched by rail or on a prepared airstrip, then recovered in a net. A vertical take off and landing UAV would resolve these issues."
Current proposals call for VTOL UAVs to be able to successfully operate from any flight-capable ship or unprepared airfield. In addition, based on tactical line-of-sight considerations, the aircraft must fly at 13,000-foot altitudes.
But UAVs have proven equally attractive in many parts of the civilian world. The Coast Guard is interested in them for search and rescue missions. The Drug Enforcement Agency has looked at them as a means of providing unobtrusive border surveillance. Many police departments view them as an excellent way to survey traffic.
Other ideas include the surveillance of areas requiring environmental restoration, keeping an eye on pipelines, and detecting unexploded ordnance. Ideas are almost limitless.
More than 20 representatives of military forces from seven nations visited U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground May 13 and 14 to learn more about modern vertical take-off and landing UAV capabilities. These nations included Sweden, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Turkey, and Canada.
After a full day of detailed briefings and discussions, the group visited "site eight" at Yuma Proving Ground where a great deal of VTOL UAV development testing is taking place. There they witnessed flights of two VTOL UAV prototypes: The CL-327 "Guardian," and the "Eagle Eye."
Shaped like an upright peanut, the CL-327 is a greatly upgraded version of the CL-227 UAV, which was designed and built many years ago. An aircraft featuring very many untraditional lines, the "Guardian" has flown over 20 flights for over 35 total hours. Achieving an air speed of over 90 knots, it has successfully flown at altitudes over 10,000 feet. It first came to Yuma Proving Ground for testing in early March.
The "Eagle Eye" has the appearance of a conventional aircraft, with tilt rotors at the end of each wing that allow it to maneuver up or down, and hover. The aircraft has flown over 30 times, for over 35 flight hours. It has achieved airspeed of over 180 knots, with an altitude over 9000 feet. It arrived at Yuma Proving Ground in late February.
Each current UAV carries approximately a 200-lb. payload. The payload can be modified for each mission, but can easily include items such as forward looking infrared radar, laser designators, video (infrared and standard) equipment, and much more. Though U.S. Department of Defense doctrine requires current UAVs to be non-lethal, technological progression may lead to future armed UAVs that complement forces of armed helicopters, fighters and bombers.
"Both private companies have learned a great deal about their UAVs while at Yuma Proving Ground," said Albert. "Our restricted airspace enables them to fly great distances in realistic conditions. And they do it every day for five days each week."
"The developers really like it here because of our good weather, the abundant range time we offer, and our fully instrumented ranges allow them to verify their systems."
These instruments include radar, laser tracking, detailed meteorological data, and video tracking from the proving ground's portable kineto tracking mounts. These mounts permit cameras to use very long lenses that provide excellent close-up photography of the systems in action.
The Yuma Proving Ground demonstration progressed well, with the foreign guests asking many questions and obtaining a great deal of first hand information. According to Maj. David Fallon of the Australian Army, one of the visitors, the event proved to be quite valuable in relation to current events.
"UAV development is taking place very quickly," said Glenn. "Nations throughout the world are looking at them as real options, whether it be for military use or police-type operations. As a result, many contractors are going into the UAV arena and developing all sorts of options."
"The large, open range at Yuma Proving Ground makes it an excellent asset, as does the clear weather. This area even looks similar to much of the land we have in the center of Australia."
Lt. Col. Bob Scott, Canadian Forces Defense Attache, says UAVs could be particularly appropriate for United Nations or coalition peacekeeping operations.
"We want the capability to protect our troops and see what's happening on both sides of a conflict," he said. "We're more interested in this than in the UAVs warfighting abilities at this time."
More detailed testing will take place in future months before the VTOL UAVs are ready for fielding. According to Test Director Dick Albert, a large portion, if not most, of the testing promises to take place at the proving ground.
"One of the things everyone must remember about the VTOL UAV concept is that we're talking about a complete system, which consists of air vehicles and ground control station," emphasized Stuart. "The ground station actually costs more to the user than the aircraft does. It's the place where the aircraft is controlled and the product of the mission is transmitted back."
Stuart said the basic cost of an F-16 aircraft, one that is almost stripped down, is approximately $20 million. A system of four VTOL UAVs and a ground station is projected to cost in the vicinity of $8 million.
"UAVs have been important to the military since the Vietnam War," said Stuart. "They save lives, keep down training costs and prevent highly trained pilots from having to perform routine flying chores that can last for many hours. UAVs save them for the situations that require their talents. UAVs are complementary to manned aircraft and represent a 'win-win' for everyone concerned."
(Editor's note: Wullenjohn is the Chief, Public Affairs at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground.)