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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Product Focus: Sensor Payloads

As civilian interest in unmanned aircraft systems escalates, the focus on developing smaller, lighter and more capable sensor payload technologies intensifies

By Ed McKenna

After registering explosive gains since 2001, the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) industry is now facing shifting operational and market conditions. The U.S. military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the reductions in defense spending have already spurred cuts and delays of UAS programs. At the same time, demand for the systems is growing in many parts of the world, and, over the next few years, the U.S. civil market could provide a wealth of opportunities for UAS companies. For technology developers for the small- to medium-sized UASs, the emphasis is now not so much on building more platforms but on developing and deploying smaller, lighter and more capable sensor payloads.

The entire UAS market will be worth $64.7 billion between 2013 and 2022, said Larry Dickerson, First Forecast’s senior unmanned vehicles analyst. The payload portion of that will be worth about $13.5 billion, a bit more than the $13.1 billion spent on the air vehicles. The overall tally, however, is down $6.2 billion from earlier projections due mainly to the cancellation of the German EuroHawk program and cuts to U.S. Global Hawk procurement, Dickerson said. “Despite these cuts, the worldwide market will see an increase in the number of units purchased,” reflecting growth in sales in countries like South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Turkey and South Africa.

In the United States, however, the budget cuts have not only hit the larger UAS programs, like the Global Hawk, but they have also affected producers of smaller UAVs. “It’s affected us for sure,” said Steve Gitlin, vice president of marketing strategy and communications for the Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment (AV). “The threat of sequestration earlier in our fiscal year resulted in the delay of a number of contracts … (and) we had to reduce … our guidance for revenue for the fiscal year just ended right by around 30 percent.”

In addition, with the “cooling down of the hot wars … (the) hot demand for new things tomorrow or today or yesterday is tapering down right now,” said Andy von Flotow, president and founder of Hood Technology, an engineering company based in Hood River, Ore. The demand “has been kind of been semi-replaced by a worldwide trend of more and more guys wanting to do this, but it is pretty hard for the world to replace the Pentagon …  so our business is kind of level right now. It is not shrinking; it’s not growing,” he said. “We’re still innovating like mad, and innovation is still the right thing to do.”

In fact, as budgets tighten, the stature of sensor payload portion of the UAS has been growing. At recent UAS conferences, many industry officials have taken to referring to UAVs as “trucks,” reported Michael Blades, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “Some people have better or bigger trucks than others, but the bottom line is nobody is really focused on trying to improve the platforms as much as they are … the payloads.”

For example, AeroVironment completed in the past year a major payload upgrade on all of its key platforms — the 15-ounce Wasp, 4.5 pound Raven and 13-pound Puma — replacing fixed payloads with a line of mechanical Pan Tel Zoom gimbaled sensor payloads that boost situational awareness and target tracking. “Our customers have begun the process of upgrading their previous payloads with the new gimbaled payloads,” Gitlin said. “In the case of the Raven, it’s a modular payload, and you basically pop one off and pop one on,” he said. “There is a software update on the ground control station, but that’s pretty much it, so the upgrade process can actually take place in the field.”

Efforts to reduce the payload size and weight without diminishing capability have been especially helpful for smaller UASs. With current payloads, “we can do ... what 10 years ago was done with stuff that weighed four times (as much)” and enable “smaller UAVs to do what larger UAVs used to do,” said von Flotow.

“It starts with the focal planes,” he said. “Focal planes are getting … lower and lower noise and better and better signal-to-noise and smaller pixels.” For example, in the case of a “mid-wave cooled focal plane, the entire package is requiring less and less cooling” so it needs smaller coolers, and “once you shrink that stuff, the lens can shrink, or you can get … (with) the same lens … much better spatial resolution on the ground.”

“We continue to see new payload capabilities becoming available in smaller scale,” reported Ian McDonald, a vice president at Waterloo, Ontario, Canada-based Aeryon Labs. This year, the company launched its 5.2-pound SkyRanger VTOL UAS that offers Electro Optical (EO)/Infrared (IO) capability on the same size gimbaled ball as previous EO payloads. Aeryon is also offering a 3-axis stabilized EO on the SkyRanger; it “will have additional payloads in future,” while the company’s 3-pound Scout mini-VTOL UAV “currently has a broad range of commercial payloads,” he said.

“From our perspective, there is a significant and growing focus in (using) small UASs as sensor platforms, and we’re observing customer transitions from both manned and larger unmanned platforms to Aeryon systems,” McDonald said. For the military, “the primary driver has been immediate and operator controlled data collection,” while civil users are attracted the systems’ “cost effectiveness” vs. the larger platforms and “high accuracy.”

Stepping up a bit in weight class, Bingen, Wash.-based Insitu, manufacturer of the Scan Eagle, Integrator and its military variant RQ-21A, has sharpened its focus over the past few years on sensor payloads, establishing a “payloads directorate” that is “currently tracking more than 100 payloads” from 60 separate partners, said Paul Allen, vice president of business development at the company. One of those partners is Hood Technology.

“Our UASs are essentially trucks, (and) the customer (mainly) wants the output from the sensor,” said Allen. Responding to this demand, the company offers a battery of advanced payloads for the approximately 40-pound Scan Eagle including its EO 900 high magnification imager. Introduced this year, it features a 170x optical zoom in a gyro-stabilized system, a rate that “is unheard in the industry especially in the small package,” said Allen. Other technologies include a dual imager, combining it EO and mid-wave infrared imager (MWIR) cameras in the same turret, an automatic identification system (AIS), Bandit Digital Data Link, and a communications relay.

The RQ-21A, developed under the Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS) program, has “a plug and play payload bay that allows for rapid integration of custom payloads,” Allen said. “It has multifunction EO, MWIR, Laser marker (and) Laser Range Finder turret that allows cross cueing of the data between the imager, the laser marker and range finder.” The company has also lined up a launch customer in the Middle East for the Integrator, which was developed in parallel with the RQ-21A, Allen said. (For more on the RQ-21A, see pg. 10.)

Meanwhile, manufacturers of medium size or larger UAVs, such as AAI, which offers the Shadow 200 Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (TUAS) and the Shadow M2, are using a variety of payloads to efficiently build multi-mission capability. “A common, multi-mission-capable platform simplifies mission execution (and) … saves time and money. For example, the addition of a new payload to a proven aircraft would not require the same qualification process that an entirely new unmanned aircraft system would,” said AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ Senior Vice President and General Manager Bill Irby.
The company’s multi-mission payload is “a modular pod that allows our Shadow (TUAS) to be equipped quickly in the field for various mission profiles via wing-mounted hard points,” he said, adding that multi-mission capability allows for “weaponization, which U.S. military customers are considering now beyond the largest classes of UAS.”

Integrator system, manufactured by Insitu, packs electro-
optic and mid-wave infrared sensors, an IR marker and a
laser rangefinder into one multifunction ball turret carried
in the nose bay, according to the company.
The company’s family of multi-mission payloads include secure, third-generation telecommunications uplink and downlink; Signals Intelligence (SIGINT); measurement and signatures intelligence (MASINT); state-of-the-art communications and precision geo-location; cyberspace survey, interdiction and attack; and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detection.

A modular approach allows operators to sidestep the issue of added weight since “you don’t have everything on the air vehicle at the same time,” said Dickerson. In addition, a user can get by with fewer air vehicles and more payloads “because you are mixing and matching them,” he said. “Modularity is a great idea; (however) it is going to take time to work out (some) kinks.”

To this point, most of the research and development has been devoted to military applications; however, companies are also developing applications for the commercial market, said Blades.
For now, the use of UASs in U.S. national airspace (NAS) has been limited to FAA issued Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) available to public entities. Hundreds of these COAs have been granted since 2009 with common uses including law enforcement, fire fighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue and military training, according to FAA. However, FAA is working under a congressional mandate to address the safe integration of UASs into the national airspace by 2015. “We participate in several groups dedicated to this goal and believe it is not only feasible but critical … (since) it holds immense potential to benefit both our communities and our economy,” Irby said. (For more on the technological challenges to the UAS integration, see pg. 14.)

The predictions of potential financial gains from the civil and commercial use of UASs in NAS vary widely. In a study this year, Aerospace Industries Association predicted an $89 billion windfall over the next decade. Dickerson at Forecast International said, “it could be worth $600 million to $1 billion” over the decade. “The civilian side (civil government and commercial) is growing but is difficult to measure,” he said, noting that part of his estimate “will be taken up by service contracts and part by production.”

“The initial entrants would most likely be smaller, lower-cost systems of 50 pounds or less,” said Irby. “By design, these systems fly at lower altitudes, have a smaller acoustic signature and shorter mission endurance … (and) are equipped with electro-optic/infrared payloads for day-and-night imagery.”

In fact, UAVs that weigh 25 pounds or less will likely be the very earliest entrants, said Paul McDuffee, Insitu’s associate vice president of government relations and strategy. McDuffee served as a member of the Small Unmanned Aircraft System Aviation Rulemaking Committee Aviation Rulemaking Committee begun by FAA in 2009. “FAA and the Department of Justice (recently) signed a letter of agreement to accelerate the approval process allowing law enforcement and first responders to deploy very small UASs … for visual eye sight in a very limited range of operations,” he said. “Scan Eagle and Integrator are a little large for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we bar ourselves from opportunities,” he said, adding “there are some things that are likely to take place that we can’t share … now.”

AeroVironment’s offerings do fit that smaller profile, and the company has developed, for example, “radiation detection and chemical biological agent detection payloads,” said Gitlin. There has not been a lot demand for these, so they’re “not a product yet,” he said, adding that in the civilian market “utilities or those who operate nuclear power plants… might take a greater interest in this kind of very portable low-cost monitoring system (that can) … cover a large area.”

Aeryon also offers systems in the low weight category. Its SkyRanger is initially available “to government and military customers, but it will also (eventually) be available to commercial customers,” said McDonald. The company has already created for Scout platform “a standardized payload interface to allow rapid development of custom payloads designed to customer specifications” including civil and commercial uses. Aeryon has also “developed a number of payloads with civil or commercial application including electrochemical and infrared imaging, gas and liquid detectors, radiation detection and acoustic detection and location sensors.

The very small VTOL platform can be used for law enforcement missions, including missing persons searches, bomb disposal and crime-scene investigations. In addition, “the Scout can be used to assist in the control and coordination during fire fighting operations, providing constant view of both structural hotspots and personnel” with its thermal FLIR camera and “can also be used for damage assessment and cause  investigation,” said McDonald. “On the commercial side, there is growing interest from the energy sector for applications, such as infrastructure inspection, site and collection/distribution security, aerial mapping for environmental assessments and construction projects.”

“As the airspace opens further, we are likely to see (the use of) a greater variety of UAS classes and applications — from border security to emergency response/communications to disaster recovery,” said Irby.

Next month: Test Equipment

Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets. Avionics Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at emckenna@accessintel.com.

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