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Transforming the Future of Warfare with UAVs

Transforming the Future of Warfare with UAVs

Innovative technologies are enabling highly capable new Unmanned Air Vehicles and providing enhancements to existing systems. Source: AFRL's Air Vehicles Directorate, Integration and Operations Division, Technology Integration Branch, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB), Ohio. September 2002.

Unmanned Air [DML1]Vehicles (UAVs) have demonstrated tremendous new warfighter capabilities—transforming the future of warfare. The Navy's Pioneer demonstrated these capabilities during Operation DESERT STORM and the Air Force's Predator UAV (see Figure 1) demonstrated them in the Balkans.

Figure 1. Predator UAV

The Global Hawk reconnaissance UAV (see Figure 2) joined the Predator, now equipped with a laser designator and Hellfire missiles, in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. The Air Vehicles Directorate is developing advanced technologies to enhance the effectiveness and affordability of UAV systems as well as enable new and more capable UAV systems. Two integrating concepts within the UAV focus area, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) and SensorCraft, help focus the technology development on concepts related to the warfighter. UCAV, jointly funded among AFRL, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Boeing, matured from a concept to the X-45, achieving its first flight in May 2002.


Figure 2. Global Hawk UAV

The directorate is developing on-vehicle control capabilities to enable UAVs to be as safe and effective as manned assets, but at significantly reduced size, weight, and cost. The approach is to develop, integrate, and demonstrate the key capabilities for autonomous control: reliable, compact, lightweight hardware and intelligent inner-loop control functions to compensate for failures and changing flight conditions. Technologies in development include photonic vehicle management systems, intelligent reconfigurable control, prognostic health management, and automatic air collision avoidance.

Researchers are developing mission control capabilities that will enable multiple UAVs to effectively operate as a cooperative group. The approach is to develop, integrate, and demonstrate the key capabilities for mission management: self-adapting outer-loop control to provide onboard capability to react to changing mission needs and formation planning, guidance, and control. Technologies in development are addressing multi-ship coordinated control and fundamental issues in path planning and guidance for single- and multi-vehicle coordinated UAV operations.1

Researchers will break current air vehicle design paradigms as they develop technologies to structurally embed and integrate antennas, arrays, and subsystems into the wings and fuselages of UAVs. These technologies will allow researchers to design vehicles around the mission's sensor requirement rather than designing the sensors to fit the constraints of the vehicle. Sensors for reconnaissance UAVs contribute to a significant portion of the overall vehicle weight. Researchers will drastically reduce this weight as technologies evolve to make the sensors structural components of the airframe.

Operators primarily measure the effectiveness and affordability of reconnaissance UAVs, such as Global Hawk, by endurance capability. Increased endurance translates into longer range for more complex missions or more loiter time over station, which means fewer vehicles are required to maintain a continuous presence over the battlefield. Implementation of adaptive structures, active flow control, and ultra-lightweight airframe concepts specific to high altitude airfoil geometry enhance aerodynamic efficiency. Flexible structures, coupled with advanced actuation concepts, will enable aircraft geometry to adapt to changing flight conditions and increase aerodynamic efficiency throughout the mission profile. Researchers will use a considerable amount of modeling and simulation from basic science and component modeling through, and including, mission simulation to explore vehicle advantages and impacts of various technology sets.

Researchers will specifically design a new generation of more-unitized structures for UAVs that will reduce manufacturing cost and increase system readiness without weight or supportability penalties. The approach is to identify, develop, and transition new structural design concepts and manufacturing methods for both metals and composites that place emphasis on reducing part count and the number of structural joints and fasteners. Technologies in development include probabilistic design methods and low-cost composite manufacturing processes from the automotive and general aviation industries for more reliable bonded joints. Researchers are centering design concepts on effective integration of unitized advanced composite and metal structures, and focusing design methods and criteria development on predicting failure for these non-traditional materials and manufacturing methods.

The length of the inlet and exhaust system determines, in large part, the UAV's size and shape characteristics, particularly combat UAVs. Lightweight components using active flow control technologies will reduce the vehicle propulsive volume while maintaining low observable compatibility. Figure 3 illustrates the flow improvement in a compact inlet due to active flow control. One of the benefits of reduced propulsive volume is a smaller and lighter vehicle with more room to carry fuel. Effective propulsion integration is key to overall mission effectiveness.

Figure 3. Active flow control

Directed energy weapons (see Figure 4) will provide tremendous new capabilities to future air vehicles. Small and medium-sized tactical UAVs would be an ideal first application of these technologies. The Air Vehicles Directorate is working with other AFRL directorates to demonstrate the technologies required to efficiently and effectively integrate these directed energy sources, and propulsion and power systems into these types of air vehicles. Researchers will demonstrate flow control around apertures to improve beam control for comparatively small tactical laser systems.

Figure 4. Directed energy weapons

UAVs are transforming the way wars are fought. The warfighter can gather intelligence information more effectively and less expensively than before. In the future, pilots will not need to be put at risk for the most dangerous strike missions. The Air Vehicles Directorate is developing technologies to make these changes a reality.

  • The UAV Focus Area team [DML2] of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Air Vehicles Directorate wrote this article. For more information contact TECH CONNECT at (800) 203-6451 or place a request at http://www.afrl.af.mil/techconn/index.htm. Reference document VA-02-09.


1 McDowell, J. and Smith, R. "Agent-Based Hierarchical Architecture for Autonomous Control of Lethal Unmanned Vehicles." AFRL Technology Horizons®, vol 3, no 2 (Jun 02), 33-35.

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).