Government Security Air Force trying out unmanned aerial vehicles for security
Government Security Air Force trying out unmanned aerial vehicles for security

Nov 1, 1998 12:00 PM
Carol Carey

Saving lives by using machines instead of people is the driving force behind a U.S. Air Force program aimed at protecting its Security Forces. For the first time in its history, the Air Force is experimenting with the use of ground-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to protect its 30, 000 worldwide Security Forces. Traditionally, force protection surveillance has been accomplished through manned-area or point-reconnaissance missions. The first of a series of demonstrations of the new technology - part of an 18-month study - occurred in mid-July near Ft. Sumner, N.M. In the demonstration, similar manned and automatic surveillance missions are undertaken simultaneously. "We're looking at different platforms with different video cap- abilities," says Capt. Joel Dickinson of the Force Protection Battlelab. The Ft. Sumner test was conducted with a rotary-winged vertical take-off helicopter. Fixed-wing UAVs most likely will be tested next, Dickinson says. "We do the demonstrations with people at the same time," he says. Air Force personnel, stationed with the 8th Security Forces Squadron, Kunsan AB, Korea, and members of the 113th Air National Guard, based in Washington, D.C., performed the same mission, he adds. "We do a quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the manned versus unmanned scenarios, looking at how long it takes people to reach the targeted area as opposed to the UAVs, the comparative accuracy of the UAV and manned mission operations, and the comparative thoroughness of the information gathered," he says. Equally, if not more important, are the intangibles, Dickinson says. "We're saving lives by using the UAVs, by relying on machines instead of people," he says. While the use of UAVs is not new to the Air Force or armed forces - the U.S. Navy, for instance, used them in the Gulf War - their use is new to the Air Force Security Forces. UAVs have been used in the past mostly for direct military reconnaissance. "It is the first time UAVs have been applied to force protection for purposes of surveillance of base perimeters or forward deployed positions," says Denton Lankford, chief of public affairs for the Force Protection Battlelab. Participants of the July test besides the UAV included units stationed in Korea and the Air National Guard. They performed the same tactical maneuvers as the UAV that would be used in the case of a detected threat. "The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center will compare every aspect of these scenarios," Lankford says. The equipment used in July included electro-optical cameras for daytime use and infrared cameras for nighttime detection. At night, the pan/tilt/zoom cameras delivered detailed pictures of the targeted ground area with little or no light. "People, buildings, bridges and vehicles could all be picked up, " Dickinson says. Electro-optical and infrared cameras were mounted at the front of the helicopter. The 30-pound video camera, with one housing and two lenses, was integrated with the UAV radio equipment through two switchable video inputs and one RS-232 duplex data interface. Video was transmitted to the ground control station via C-band video link. The data link was S-Band spread spectrum. The helicopter had a line-of-sight data link to the groundstation at 10,000 meters, 7,000 feet above sea level, Lankford says. Desired specifications included a flight distance of 6.4 miles, an easily operable system for non-commissioned officers and a control system that could fit in the back of a Ford Expedition, Dickinson says. A two-person team should be able to place the UAV in the back of a Humvee, drive to the location and have the UAV flying, all within 30 minutes. The helicopter was 9 feet long with 9-foot rotor blades. Schiebel Technology Inc., a European company with offices in Washington, D.C. , was the subcontractor for the control station. Different subcontractors may be used for future tests, Dickinson says. The control station included three computer processors: a Pentium 200 MHz, 64 MB RAM processor for flight control; a Pentium 200 MHz, 128 MB RAM processor for mission control, and a Pentium 200 MHz 128 MB RAM processor for video control. Two monitors were used, one for flight and one for mission control. The flight control monitor, says Dickinson, relates to the helicopter's systems and performance, such as temperature, oil pressure, altitude, speed and antenna. The software for the UAV's force protection surveillance mission - in this case, out in the middle of the desert with obvious targets and little vegetation - allowed contractors to scan maps for observation. The helicopter, programmed to stop at "way points," sounded an alert to signify its arrival and then waited for further instructions. Manual tracking was by joystick. Future tests will be more complex, says Dickinson. The next one, for instance, may be conducted on hilly terrain and have more vegetation and man-made camouflage nets. "We would want to stress the system further, with the camouflaged targets, for instance," says Dickinson. "We may try to participate in some sort of large-scale Air Force exercise. Right now, it's a very controlled scenario." The next test may compare a fixed-wing aircraft with a helicopter, both unmanned, Dickinson says. One idea under discussion has been to survey an area with both types of UAVs on consecutive days and, through a specially designed software program, detect discrepancies between each day's information.

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