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DoD seeks a common controller for many unmanned systems

Oct. 16, 2013 - 05:17PM   |  
An Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land. In December, a Global Hawk demonstration by Northrop Grumman put the company a step closer to creating a common product line for future UAV ground controllers.
An Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land. In December, a Global Hawk demonstration by Northrop Grumman put the company a step closer to creating a common product line for future UAV ground controllers. (John Schwab / Air Force)
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After decades of experimentation and development, the variety and deployment of unmanned military systems mushroomed during the global war on terrorism. But with this massive growth came an array of noninteroperable, proprietary controllers that are used to remotely operate unmanned air and ground vehicles and their sensors.

In response, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics has been trying to corral these disparate systems into a common controller. A single system that could be used to control a variety of vehicles would save money while simplifying training and operations.

Industry has approached the problem from different directions, including service-oriented architecture, “black box” hardware and plug-and-play software interfaces. Still, companies contend that the Defense Department will also need to change how it develops unmanned systems, which are now under the authority of siloed program offices.

First the phone, then the apps

In December, Northrop Grumman flew an RQ-4 Global Hawk with a hardware-software combo called the Mission Management Control System (MMCS). That demonstration, company officials said, put Northrop a step closer to creating a common product line for future UAV ground controllers.

However, a common product line is very different from a single universal command and control system. Indeed, Michael Leahy, director of the Northrop product center that developed the MMCS for the demo, believes that trying to create a one-size-fits-all controller for UAVs — and that’s not taking into consideration the teeming multitude of other unmanned systems — is a fool’s errand.

“The wide range of different air vehicle types, sensors and payloads and mission requirements doesn’t affordably lend itself to a single universal controller,” he said.

Northrop Grumman is instead going the route of service-oriented architecture, in which “services” — reusable pieces of code that, for example, tell a UAV to bank left or right or turn a full-motion video camera — are written to a common standard, so development teams can later use them as the basis for specific control systems. It’s an approach that Leahy compares to an iPhone, which was built by Apple, and apps created by third-party developers, which must adhere to Apple’s standards.

Northrop Grumman is still working on its “iPhone” for the Global Hawk family of unmanned aircraft. It’s a goal that, technically speaking, could be met in a year. But there are always other factors involved. In the meantime, the company is doing what it can to leverage its work on the MQ-4 Triton program, the Ground Station Technical Refresh contract and the NATO Airborne Ground System.

“The trick is to use existing contracts and tweak them a little so they take the next step down the path of commonality,” Leahy said.

Bring your own software

QinetiQ North America, by contrast, has eschewed the building-block software approach to interoperability and offers a lightweight Tactical Robotic Controller (TRC) backed by a communications pack. Developed for the Marine Corps under a contract with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, the TRC was meant to consolidate the different controllers used by Marines into an 8-pound package with joysticks.

The TRC is basically a “black box” that accepts the proprietary software of other companies and uses it to run an assortment of vehicles. So whereas Northrop has focused its efforts on high-altitude drones, the QinetiQ solution has been used to control small UAVs (for example, the AeroVironment Wasp III and Honeywell T-Hawk), ground robots and unattended ground sensors.

“There are industry efforts to create common software for talking to unmanned assets, but that software is largely not available today and will probably not be available for a number of years,” said Charles Dean, business development director within QinetiQ’s unmanned systems division.

“And the Marines had need of a lightweight, common control system sooner than that.”

Underscoring how easy it is to integrate systems with the TRC, Dean tells how, at last year’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International show, an unmanned systems contractor loaded his software into the controller in just 20 minutes, right on the exhibit floor.

(When asked why Northrop didn’t also develop a controller for air and ground vehicles, Leahy said that Global Hawks are not “toys” — to which Dean countered: “We have not yet found any unmanned asset we couldn’t control, and there are some larger assets we’re controlling today that we’re not at liberty to talk about.”)

For now, QinetiQ has been working on refining its system.

During a series of field experiments last year with the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, operators using the TRC simultaneously piloted unmanned aircraft and drove ground robots. It didn’t matter that the vehicles were running on different software operating systems.

Still, Dean agrees that a common controller is not the same thing as a universal controller and that one always needs to take into consideration other platforms and command-and-control systems nearby. “A small, lightweight wearable controller on an aircraft carrier is probably not ideal,” he said.

Windows for drones

There is, however, one high-tech company that is seriously looking at all unmanned systems: Santa Monica, Calif.-based DreamHammer. While not offering a controller per se, DreamHammer does have Ballista: software that enables defense contractors with proprietary hardware to control any unmanned system in any domain.

“We designed our software to be the Windows operating system of the unmanned platform,” DreamHammer CEO Nelson Paez said. “So imagine you wanted a printer for your PC. You would go to Best Buy and choose any model, knowing it would work with your PC because the manufacturer treated his drivers with Windows [software development kit]. Same thing with Ballista.”

Since August 2011, DreamHammer has licensed its software to offices such as Navy PEO Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. In addition, the company has been implementing the standards set by the UAS Control Segment Working Group, founded in 2009 by the Pentagon’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics office to push for common UAV architecture.

Though it works with the military and intelligence community to better understand requirements, DreamHammer sees system integrators and original equipment manufacturers as its primary customers.

“We offer the unmanned industry the ability to take cheap commercial software that meets interoperability requirements and help them refresh technology they’ve developed under programs of record,” Paez said.

As a result, DreamHammer does not have to worry about siloed programs of record or companies that simply won’t let go of their proprietary hardware. Ballista just bridges those differences, the company says. Since late last year, DreamHammer has been giving top UAV companies access to the beta version of its software.

First published in the September edition of C4ISR & Networks.

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