Commercial, Military

Product Focus: Sensor Payloads

By by Ed McKenna | August 1, 2012
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Last year, Northrop Grumman Firebird intelligence-gathering air system successfully used three different high-definition video sensors and an electronics support payload all at the same time.

Facing tight budgets and a military operation drawdown, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology vendors are refining their offerings to meet changing market conditions and targeting not just battlefield missions but also civilian opportunities. Aircraft producers are looking to offset a potential slowdown in sales by adding capability and revamping existing platforms to accommodate additional technologies. With a boost from technology advances, sensor payload developers are producing more compact and complex systems to meet growing demand.

While budgets are getting tighter, there is no sign of a drop off in worldwide UAS sales. In its annual report, the Teal Group estimates unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) annual expenditures will grow from $6.6 billion this year to $11.4 billion in 2021.That tally is only slightly off last year’s projected growth. The sales rate for sensor payloads during the same period is projected to rise a bit from $2.7 billion to $6 billion per year.

The boost in sensor spending may be an indicator of growing emphasis on these payloads following a buying spree that saw the U.S. Defense Department’s UAV inventory jump from 167 to about 7,500 between 2002 and 2010, according to a Congressional Research Report.

The U.S. military is “getting away from (buying) platforms and putting their money towards sensor upgrades,” said Michael Blades, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “We are going to switch from procurement … to a maintained cycle” that is analogous to what has happened to manned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance [ISR] aircraft.

“All of the ISR aircraft that we have right now, such as the AWACs and JSTARS … are 1970s technology” that have been updated again and again.

However, despite the budget constraints and force reductions, many observers think UAV programs could be less vulnerable than other programs to those forces.

“As we pull out of Afghanistan, there is no reason why (many of) those platforms wouldn’t be left behind not necessarily in the direct control of the Afghanis, but certainly to be operated as part of nation building and security,” said Jack Byers, CEO of Vanguard Marketing International.

However, the drawdown in Afghanistan will force some redeployment of unmanned resources; many are expected to come to the United States and, potentially, be used for civilian applications, including law enforcement, border surveillance and emergency response.

The key stumbling block to this plan is the ban of UAS use in the National Air Space. However, FAA is working under a congressional mandate to address this issue by 2015. In the meantime, FAA has been issuing Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to organizations to operate temporarily.

To date, one of the largest and most visible UAS users has been the Department of Homeland Security which uses Predator Bs to monitor the southern and northern U.S. borders and is buying and deploying “a growing fleet” of Predator platforms, which they call Guardians, in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean and Eastern Atlantic.

“I presume that that domain will grow even further,” said Christopher Ames, director of business development at General Atomics. “We have integrated four different digital 360 maritime surveillance radars onto … (these) Predator B aircraft.”

Also, “DHS flies used (the Predator B) on multiple occasions following hurricanes against the Atlantic seaboard and following floods in the Dakotas a couple of winters ago,” said Dave Strong, vice president of marketing at FLIR Systems, which provides a variety of sensor payloads to almost every category of UASs. “We are definitely seeing a growth business in what might be called sovereignty protection, and it is not only on the U.S.,” he added. Interested parties include the European Union, “which is looking at border protection, immigration control and smuggling, and countries in the Far East.”

Another key factor in the shift in focus from the platform to payload may be simply the maturation of the UASs themselves.

“I think it is safe to say that maybe for the last decade or 15 years,” the focus “has been how do we reliably put an unmanned asset into the air, control it, (and) bring it back safely,” said Steve Reid, vice president of unmanned systems at AAI. That is “mainly behind us” and now “we are starting to see … (demand for) a broader portfolio of payload capabilities for the platforms.” 

AeroVironment’s RQ-11B Raven UAS includes the company’s Mantis line of miniature gimbaled sensor payloads. The multi-axis Mantis i23 houses an electro-optical and infrared thermal video sensor in addition to a laser illuminator.

In the past year, AAI has introduced the M2, a larger, longer wing span version of its RQ-7 Shadow that is configured to have two payload bays rather than the one that is on the current version, Reid said. Designed to accommodate a variety of payloads and support multiple missions, the new Shadow includes an integrated Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) motion detection payload with EO/IR, Reid said. AAI is also working with the Army and Navy to deploy a weaponized version of the current RQ-7B by next year, said Reid. “The Marines want to field that it theater in 2013.” The UAS will carry an existing but classified 25-pound weapons system “that is being adapted for the Shadow.”

“Two to three years ago, there wasn’t really a solution in that weight class,” said Reid. However, high cost and size, weight and power (SWaP) issues, key barriers to deploying advanced sensors and weapons on the smaller tactical aircraft, are receding as “more and more solutions are being developed because … manufacturers see this as a potential market.”

During the past few years, the trend to smaller, more capable payloads has, if anything, picked pace. “We just have introduced a roughly 10-inch diameter, high-definition laser target designating system, for example, which is very, very capable … that is absolutely suitable for some very small platforms,” said Strong, adding the company also offers a 7-inch diameter laser designating system.

The 4.7G AAI Aerosonde, which recently won lucrative contracts from the Navy and Special Forces Command, comes with 15-pound integrated EO/IR payload developed with Cloud Clap (now owned by Goodrich) that “is giving us all the capability … (of the) 40-pound payload for Shadow six or seven years ago,” said Reid. That is about as heavy as the 4.7G itself. It also has given the small UAV the “ability to carry a combined EO/IR payload” allowing it fly longer endurance day/night missions without having to switch payloads.

AeroVironment, maker of some of the smallest UASs — the 15-ounce Wasp, 4.5 pound Raven and 13-pound Puma — has completed the rollout of “a line of mechanical Pan Tel Zoom gimbaled sensor payloads for all three … UASs,” said Steve Gitlin, vice president of marketing strategy and communications for the Monrovia, Calif.-based company. The systems, which range between 2.5 inches to 5.8 inches in diameter and 7 ounces and 22 ounces, are replacing fixed payloads boosting the platforms’ capability and versatility. For example, “originally, the Raven had two separate payloads: two EO sensors integrated in one nose cone … and an IR sensor in a separate nose cone,” he said. With the new payload, “both infrared and color video are in a single sensor.” Also, the gimbal allows “you to fly the airplane in any direction … and still maintain a stable high-quality image of what you are interested in,” he said.

Meanwhile, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada-based Aeryon Labs is offering customized sensor payloads for its less than 3-pound micro-UAS, Scout. “Although our integrated imaging payloads continue to represent the greatest share of our sales across military, public safety and commercial segments, we are seeing an increasing interest in other sensors … (and) have created a standardized payload interface to allow rapid development of custom payloads designed to customer specifications a recent project included CO2 and CH4 detectors,” said Ian McDonald, a vice president at Aeryon.

The company carries a line of small integrated imaging payloads that includes the Photo3S, a high-resolution still camera; the Photo3S-NIR, a high-resolution still camera which captures images in the near-infrared spectrum; VideoZoom10x, a video camera with a 10x optical zoom; and the Thermal FLIR camera. The latter “detects differences in heat signatures (and is) used for everything from missing persons searches, night-time tactical scenarios, detecting component damage or leaks,” McDonald said. 

Aeryon Labs’ UAS Scout features several available payload systems, including near-infrared and custom imaging.

All the payload development is by no means confined to the smaller aircraft. For the larger UAVs, the military is investing in “lots of wide area sensor (technologies),” said Frost & Sullivan’s Blades. Exhibit A is Sierra Nevada’s Gorgon Stare, a surveillance sensor system deployed on the U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, a General Atomics Predator B, that uses multiple video cameras deployed that allows the UAS “to look at several different … spots at the same time,” he said.

On its own, General Atomics offers its Lynx multimode SAR radar for its Predator, while working on technology initiatives, such as Highlighter, “which is an ultra, ultra high resolution sensor,” said Ames. Currently mounted on Army aircraft, Ames predicts it will be deployed “on the UAVs … as an automated image processor that allows … real-time identification of hard to detect threats including IEDs,” he said. “Because it is stereo-optic — it is multiple very high power electro optic devices — it produces a 3-D image that allows forces to better understand the environment into which they are or may be moving into.”

The company also has tested with Army its Triclops system, which uses three EO pods on aircraft — “one on the center (and) one each on either wing … (to provide) a wide area of regard because you have tripled the number of eyes in the sky,” Ames said.

Along with efforts to deploy more capable systems, the larger aircraft makers are also building additional versatility into their platforms. The key terms are “plug and play” or “open architecture.”

At last year’s U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Empire Challenge, for example, Northrop Grumman demonstrated the ability of its Firebird, which can operate in manned or unmanned mode, to support multiple payloads: three HD full-motion video sensors from FLIR Systems and the Northrop Grumman-produced Common Signals Intelligence System 1500 that provided an electronics support and direction finding capability.

Rick Crooks, director of special projects and Firebird program manager for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, touted the aircraft’s “universal interface.” Comparing it to “plugging a memory stick into a computer,” Crooks said with the plug-and-play technology, the company could “place many different sensors on Firebird and operate them in a matter of minutes.” From FLIR’s perspective, the flight demonstrated the capability of its sensors “to plug and play with multiple systems … on the same platform,” Strong said.

This year, General Atomics demonstrated in a live flight “a new open payload architecture” version of its Predator B for an international audience including European and U.S. officials at what the company called Sovereign Payload Capability Demonstration. In the event, the aircraft, which was fitted with a Galileo Seaspray 7500E surveillance radar payload, flew over the Pacific Ocean, showcasing the radar system’s target tracking capabilities and its ability to operate on the Predator platform. “The point of demonstration was to (show) it is technically possible for a third party to develop their own payload software” for the aircraft, Ames said, adding the program is on hold as the company reviews feedback “from customers or prospective customers.”

As the UAV manufacturers open up their platforms, technology developers, such as PV Labs, are working with systems that could become standard on these vehicles. “Our specialty is emerging (or) new technology sensors,” said Jack Bastedo, vice president of PV Labs, of Van Nuys, Calif. This includes Wide Area Motion Video Surveillance (WAMI), hyperspectral imagery and some other technology that falls into the GEOINTS or Geospatial Intelligence category. The goal is to provide “a system that does a better job of providing … insight into what is really happening — that (information) you can’t see with the eyeball,” he said. This can mean providing “pattern of life detection” such as focusing on “places where people have gone and stopped and started on a consistent basis over a period of time.” For this, PV Labs offers PSI 1280/3000 sensors which allow for high resolution persistent wide area surveillance. The company’s hyperspectral imager uses a Fourier-Transform Spectrometer to measure spectral radiance coming from a scene to reveal in an otherwise boring cityscape, for example, emissions, such as traces of explosives or other related chemicals.

While offering surveillance breakthroughs, these systems have their challenges beyond their complexity. “They are bigger, heavier and draw more power” than EO and IR video systems, Bastedo said. They also “require more elegant algorithms for processing” than conventional sensors. The systems aren’t necessarily designed to replace other system but rather as a “specialty sensor to focus on a particular area of interest.”

When it comes to emerging technologies, a fee-for-service marketing model comes more into play because smaller organizations cannot afford to hire the expertise along with the significant capital investment involved, especially in the current economy, said Bastedo.

Actually, mainstream companies are also using the service model, including AAI and Insitu. Already being used in the defense space, “the service business model can be the key to entry into civil market,” said Byers. “I think early adoption of unmanned platforms into the civil/commercial space will be predicated on things like the availability of ISR by the hour where I am able to contract for a capability.”

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

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