U.S. Army helicopters shared the bright blue skies of Utah recently with an assortment of unmanned drones to see how well two kinds of aircraft—with and without pilots onboard—might work together in combat.
Known as MUSIC, for Manned Unmanned Systems Integration Capability, the exercise above the Dugway Proving Ground near Salt Lake City highlighted the Army’s plan to integrate its growing fleet of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with helicopters and ground troops, who rely on the helicopters’ firepower and the drones’ surveillance data. This first in a planned series of biennial exercises, held on September 15 and 16, had both types of aircraft sharing video and data, while soldiers in the air and on the ground took turns controlling the drones.
“This allows the soldier to get information right now as opposed to a few hours from now, or maybe days, which has been the case in the past,” said Lt. Col. James Kennedy, the Army’s product manager for Common System Integration, in a teleconference with reporters held a week after the event.
On the piloted side were an Apache AH-64D Longbow attack helicopter and an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter. The Apache established communications with a MQ-1C Gray Eagle—the Army’s largest unmanned aircraft—while both were in flight over the airfield. The helicopter crew received video from the Gray Eagle just like they would from their own on-board sensors, then relayed the signal to a new Universal Ground Control Station. The UGCS and a smaller, mini-UGCS are slated to be fielded next year, first for the RQ-7B Shadow and later for the larger Gray Eagle. Mounted on a truck or Humvee, the new stations will allow Army combat aviation brigades to operate multiple unmanned aircraft with a single controller, a capability long sought by the military.
During the 90-minute demonstration, the Kiowa helicopter relayed video and data via a smaller MQ-5B Hunter drone to troops on the ground. The exercise, watched by more than 250 spectators, including Navy, Air Force and industry representatives, ended with a live rocket fire demonstration by the Kiowa on a target spotted by unmanned aircraft (see video here).
In another MUSIC test, soldiers on the ground used the handheld One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT), which previously allowed them to operate just one small UAS, to control the larger Gray Eagle and Shadow. Operators showed how the battery-powered terminal could control the cameras on a Gray Eagle equipped with the new Triclops system. Triclops has three imaging sensors, one mounted under the aircraft’s fuselage and the other two beneath the wings. Each can be controlled by a different operator, allowing one Gray Eagle to acquire three separate targets. The system allows helicopters and unmanned aircraft to work as a team to locate, identify and target enemies from miles away—an ability that will be crucial for the Army’s new Full Spectrum Combat Aviation Brigades, which will each be equipped with eight Shadows and a dozen Gray Eagles.
John M. Doyle is a Washington-based defense and homeland security writer.