Defense in front of UAV development

September 18, 2019  - By
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The MQ-9B SkyGuardian will participate in NASA-sponsored flight tests in 2020. (Photo: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)

The MQ-9B SkyGuardian will participate in NASA-sponsored flight tests in 2020. (Photo: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)

The defense segment is going from strength to strength — despite a phase not too long ago when defense spending appeared to be dropping. Widespread drone use received a boost with specialized equipment developed for defense forces applications.

The Predator Advances

The General Atomics Predator has gone from a long-distance loiter-and-observe UAV to frontline precision-strike capability, and has been adopted by many military forces around the world.

From first flights in 1994 to initial production in 1997, the Predator has now evolved into many configurations equipped with piston engine, turboprop and jet; line-of-sight radio and satellite command and control; synthetic aperture radar and multi-spectral targeting system; video, TV and thermographic cameras; and laser designators and other payloads.

From pure reconnaissance to various strike and attack configurations, the names have also changed. Predator, Reaper, Gray Eagle, Avenger, Protector, Guardian and SkyGuardian have a host of RQ/MQ designations. For instance, In the RQ-4 Global Hawk name, the “R” means reconnaissance, the “Q” means unmanned aircraft, and the “4” is the series.

The SkyGuardian version of the Predator is a certifiable variant anticipated to ultimately become fully authorized for controlled airspace. It will take part in the NASA Systems Integration and Operationalization (SOI) demonstration program in mid-2020, which will highlight commercial UAS missions using larger drones in the national airspace.

The Predator family has now been evolving for more than 25 years. Unfortunately, the popularity of the Predator family of military unmanned aircraft has led to recent headline news about Predators shot down in the Gulf of Hormuz, or crashed in Afghanistan — such is the price of success!

Global Hawk Gathers Intel

The Northrop Grumman Global Hawk has become a U.S. mainline, high-altitude intelligence gathering asset, deployed by both the U.S. Air Force (RQ-4 Global Hawk) and Navy (MQ-4C Triton). Other friendly nations have also shown various levels of interest in acquiring variants, including Germany, Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea.

Northrop Grumman has reintroduced the Firebird as a contender in the airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) field. The Firebird can be configured as unmanned (ground control), autonomous or piloted, and has payload flexibility through open architecture, plug-and-play integration.

The North Dakota UAS test range facility at Grand Sky has initiated procurement of two Firebird UAVs, which they intend to supply to their customers for mapping, inspection and monitoring applications using their extensive, long-range BVLOS capabilities.

Skyborg Equipped with AI

And then there’s this U.S. Air Force Skyborg program, which aims to drag the most possible out of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in an airborne fighter support roll. Kratos has flown the drone hardware a couple of times – the XQ-58A Valkyrie is a “low-cost” unmanned aircraft designed to fly alongside front-line attack aircraft like the F-35 and F-18.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is researching the technology, new sensors, payloads and networking capability these drones will be outfitted with to fly alongside manned fighter jets.

A whole slew of other extremely capable drones are already being operated by the U.S. Army and Navy in a variety of support roles.

The DroneGun Tactical in use in an operational scenario. (Photo: Photo: DroneShield)

The DroneGun Tactical in use in an operational scenario. (Photo: Photo: DroneShield)

Anti-Drone Detection and Prevention

On the flip side, an entirely new related industry segment has come about in the last several years, usually adapting existing radar, sound, infrared or other ground detection systems.

This segment is aimed at circumventing unwelcome drone encroachment over sensitive facilities. Airports, governments, prisons, and energy and water utilities are among the facilities who want to prevent unwanted drones penetrating their airspace.

Solutions may be portable and short range, or ground-based and longer range, with the capability to take down an invading drone or detect where it came from and provide significant warning time.

One solution uses an attack drone that ensnares an intruder-drone in a net and brings it the defender’s location to support second-level investigations. Whatever the solution, drone defense is a growing field.

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About the Author:


Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).

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