For the defense industry, developments in drones and unmanned systems are moving forward at an increased pace —from relying on manual input and electrical control to progressively autonomous operations. As Advanced Air Vehicles (AAVs) evolve in intricacy and operational capacity, support and maintenance are becoming a priority. Vital processes are needed to escalate the full capabilities of AAVs as are supportive operating systems capable of sharing information among different collaborators of OEMs, defense forces, and defense contractors.
Matt Medley, Industry Director, A&D Manufacturing, IFS
We’re already seeing drones and unmanned aerial vehicles being used on the frontline of military operations, varying in size and scale, but each playing a vital operational role—from tiny handheld surveillance drones to large-scale remotely controlled UAVs with large payload capacity. Looking forward, we can clearly see the next key phase in UAV development will be autonomously operated air vehicles such as the Boeing Loyal Wingman project aircraft capable of both flying alongside manned aircraft for support and performing autonomous missions independently using artificial intelligence.
Autonomy in the air reduces risks on the land
Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) is a key development that we will hear more about in next-gen military UAVs. MUM-T represents autonomous aircraft collaborating with a crewed plane, in which each aircraft in the formation performs its own unique mission as defined by the US Army Aviation Center as: “The cooperative employment of unmanned assets with traditional manned platforms, providing the unique capabilities of each system to be leveraged for the same mission. The primary benefit of this employment concept is to transmit live intelligence captured from the unmanned system to the manned asset, providing the manned operator with improved situational awareness without placing them at risk.”
Protecting personnel with improved agility
As well as removing human soldiers from harm, autonomous unmanned systems also bring about other important operational advantages. For instance, being unencumbered by life support systems such as breathing apparatus and ejection seats, means ‘uncrewed’ aircraft can carry larger payloads with sensors for improved intelligence and reconnaissance, or carry more fuel which in turn allows for longer trips. As defense forces move to a more distributed operational model to counter wide-reaching threats, there are budget and logistics benefits to be gained too.
Expendable drones such as the European-produced Black Hornet micro drones will have a much lower price point than the more advanced systems. These are very small, 16cm in length and a mass of only 32g, and are designed to fly within feet of enemy soldiers and enter buildings to spy on positions without being detected—and come with a price tag of around $10,000 US$ per unit.
Unmanned systems, whatever their size and role, not only make delivery quickly and easily, but also open up many new deployment options. Fully autonomous equipment has the ability to return to base for reuse after each mission, and the locations of these bases can be more dispersed to address a changing threat environment. This would include setting up rugged, dispersed forward-operating bases, in some cases using rough runways that would be too unsafe for a manned landing.
Defying the impossible – with a reduced logistical imprint
These widened deployment options are completely in line with the US Air Force Agile Combat Employment initiative that ultimately aims to “reduce the number of Airmen in harm’s way in austere environments.” Consider the maintenance sustainment associated with the MQ-9 Reaper – labelled “The Most Dangerous Military Drone on Earth” – an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations.
A fully operational MQ-9 Reaper system comprises a sensor/ weapon-equipped aircraft, ground control station, Predator Primary Satellite Link, and spare equipment along with operations and maintenance crews for deployed 24-hour missions. The basic crew of two personnel consists of a rated pilot to control the aircraft and command the mission, and an enlisted aircrew member to operate sensors and guide weapons. Furthermore, the remotely piloted aircraft can be disassembled and loaded into a single container for deployment worldwide.
Prioritizing organization and maintenance activities
Unmanned systems will only continue in their maturity and become a key component of a modern fighting force. The inevitable result is that sustainment, support, and maintenance become key considerations to keep these assets available throughout their lifecycle—wherever they’re deployed.
Maintenance support must ensure services are provided for optimal performance of the unmanned platforms, payloads, and related components throughout the asset’s lifecycle. A quick look through recent unmanned systems RFPs and SOWs from various military forces shows the complexity of UAV logistics and sustainment activities.
The requirements are many and wide sweeping. Actions may include, but are not limited to:
• Ongoing support issues: lifecycle sustainment, supply support, depot-level support.
• Repair and maintenance issues: repair and refurbishment, alteration installation, logistics and sustainment analyses, maintenance planning, management, and services, packaging, handling, storage, and transportation.
• Training and obsolescence management: maintenance training and support, obsolescence management, Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS) support, inventory, and sparing management and much, much more!
Connecting UAVs through life support calls for an essential digital footprint
Whether these UAVs are supported and maintained by the OEMs, third-party defense contractors, or defense forces themselves, a next-generation military asset requires nextgeneration software to manage maintenance throughout its lifecycle. There needs to be an end-to-end digital thread to link all data sources and stakeholders in the military UAV ecosystem. This means unmanned system design, manufacturing, supply chain, and aftermarket services need a digital backbone capable of supporting sustainment now and into the future.
From that long list of Request for Proposal (RPF) and Scope of Work (SOW) requirements around UAV maintenance and support, it’s clear that breadth of functionality will be a key component—and this breadth needs to be reflected in supporting software as well. Data collection, analysis, and execution will be vital to ensure the readiness of UAVs, and a lot of this can be achieved with the right underlying software support to ensure the right maintenance tasks are assigned at the right time for every UAV—for planned instances, but also unplanned scenarios using advanced data analytics and forecasting.
Stepping up on cybersecurity
With remote and autonomous assets also comes the increased vulnerability to cyber-attacks—so a key requirement throughout UAV RFPs and SOWs is the need for underlying software to adhere to the highest levels of cyber protection. This means containing the ability to identify, report, and resolve security violations and ensure that all information systems are functional and secure, it also means that information assurance is defined and validated.
To this end, supporting maintenance software should be a strategic enabler for information assurance and cybersecurity. It should be designed from the ground up with security in mind, and address risks and threats throughout all phases of the software development lifecycle.
Readiness remains constant for new assets
The undeniable development of AAVs and UAVs in defense has placed the maintenance of these military resources in the hot seat, specifically due to their rising complexity and operational influence.
Each phase of the AAV and UAV lifecycle with defense OEMs, forces and contractors can be brought together to boost their availability through a digital information thread.
Any military resource, including AAVs and UAVs, should be prepared and available for each occasion, regardless of time or location.