YUMA, Ariz.: A small solar-powered unmanned aircraft flies above in the clear blue skies of the Arizona desert for hours, doing its invisible work to extend network range.
Another small air-launched drone blasts off autonomously from a helicopter, spreading its wings and soaring across the battlefield to provide airborne reconnaissance.
Elsewhere, a MedEvac software platform automatically transmits wounded soldier information back to a field hospital across the network, so medics can be ready when they arrive.
Those are a few of the 28 “firsts” touted by the Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team (FVL CFT) here at Project Convergence 21, the Army’s annual experiment in connecting “sensors to shooters” to prepare for the next-generation battlefield, despite not actually having the helicopters.
They also demonstrate how the team views well-tuned enabling technologies — far beyond just flying — as critical for the fight when the FVL CFT’s future helicopters are finally available at the end of the decade. In future wars, the Army choppers’ will be tasked with providing network resiliency and launching ISR drones, among other high-tech missions, in addition to their more traditional roles like troop transport and covering fire.
The Army isn’t expected to actually field its next-generation helicopters — the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft and the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft — until later this decade, so in the meantime the cross-functional FVL team is using Project Convergence 21 as a test bed for future capabilities that could one day be integrated into the helos. The team plays a role in five of Project Convergence’s seven use cases, each one simulating a different phase of multi-domain operations.
“All the use cases have stressed us to prove that we have the adaptive command and control networks to operate at the speed and the depth of a future battlefield,” said Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of the the Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team.
Ultimately, the future vertical lift team, based in Huntsville, Ala., aims to develop capabilities that allow the Army to dominate the lower-tier of the air domain and is responsible for developing the network at that level.
In experiments, the FVL CFT was able to nearly triple the reach of its lower-tier aerial network over last year’s Project Convergence, several CFT officials told reporters, while using fewer assets. While the CFT declined to cite specific numbers on distance citing security concerns, that added network length will allow for data from high-value targets to be transmitted across the battlefield.
“We’re doing that and we’re better at it than we were,” Rugen said. “Decision dominance, the way I look at that is I’m inside … the enemy’s circle. I’m turning inside them, versus the opposite. And so how do I do that at a speed and a range that stretches the enemy to a breaking point and that’s really what we’re flexing on out here.”
To ‘extend the eyes’
Suddenly, a small drone shoots out of a tube on the back of a Polaris DAGOR land vehicle. The drone wings spread and within seconds it quietly soars out of sight.
This is part of a Project Convergence demonstration of the service’s Air-Launched Effects capability – a small autonomous drone that can carry various payloads, including ISR capabilities to enhance situational awareness.
ALEs were a prevalent part of the future vertical lift team’s “firsts” at PC21, making up eight of the 19 unclassified firsts the FVL team shared. During Project Convergence, it launched off the back of light ground vehicles, in addition to UH-60 Blackhawks serving as a surrogate for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, including one autonomous launch as part of a project by DARPA.
The ALE-S can carry an ISR payload to allow soldiers to see in areas they don’t have eyes on and autonomously identify and notify soldiers of threats.
“It’s an unmanned system that’s launched to extend the reach of the manned platform, extend the eyes of the manned platform to do recon of areas of interest and other missions,” said Nate Bordick, intelligent teaming branch chief at Army Futures Command.
Three firsts included the 82nd Airborne soldiers charging, loading and launching the small ALEs off the ground vehicles. Other firsts included tripling its communications distance and other advanced command and control networking capabilities with a Blackhawk.
During one experiment at Project Convergence 21 simulating an IVAS-enabled air assault, the small drone identified a threat on the ground and communicated its position back to pilots, prompting them to divert to their alternative route.
“It’s going to cause a dynamic change in flight and have us make a decision as the air mission commander or the battlespace commander of how we’re going to get to that objective using the whole integration of that system,” said Capt. Roberta Woronowicz, a commander with the 82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade.
The key is the autonomy. Where soldiers would have to do reconnaissance in the past and relay threat information, now the small drone can do.
To make all these “firsts” work together in concert, much less the rest of the Army’s technology, the service depends on its Modular Open Systems Approach, or MOSA, to ensure that capabilities are built with open standards so they can easily plug in with other capabilities.
One of the primary examples of FVL’s MOSA approach is the Modular Effects Launcher, which can carry and launch multiple different types of missiles and ALEs. At PC21, the launcher was both successfully employed and launched the ALE-S.
“It’s flying true capability and it’s truly open,” Rugen said. “That is the USB port for our lethal and non-lethal, our kinetic and non-kinetic effects.”
The unmanned systems designed to work in tandem with the FVL can also be designed for endurance, like the Kraus Hamdani Aerospace fully electric, solar-powered bird that flew for hours overhead providing network coverage — a capability that could come in handy over the vastness of a potential Pacific theater of operations.
According to the company website, one of its drones recently flew more than 26 hours straight and can carry different types of payloads, including electronic warfare, communications tech or spectrum deception capabilities. In Yuma, the drone also successfully bridged disparate networks and was launched by soldiers off a light vehicle.
The FVL CFT is testing eight waveforms at PC21, with different functions depending on which phase of MDO its employed in.
As the FVL-CFT tests future capabilities on surrogate platforms, those networking capabilities must be able to communicate with the soldiers on the ground. To achieve that, the FVL team works closely with the Network Cross-Functional Team to field interoperable systems that can communicate with each other.
Rugen said the primary challenges with connecting the air and ground domain are in formatting and translating the data properly. Another challenge is getting data to report at a reasonable and manageable rate. One problem, for example, is getting the data to report back the network “as much as we need, not “here I am, here I am, here I am,’” Rugen said.
“Those rates are important, too, and we’re playing with that so the data doesn’t just flood the network with superfluous things,” Rugen said.