USAF BATMAV micro UAV competition moves to selection phase

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By Peter La Franchi in London

The US Air Force is touting its planned special operations systems groups Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle – or BATMAV – as a potential new node in the US global information grid, with the system expected to be able to pass real-time imagery into the cockpits of strike and close air support aircraft.

The new capability is predicated on sensor imagery from BATMAV aircraft being capable of being forwarded to other assets via a tactical radio linked to the UAV ground control station.

BATMAV is the first major micro air vehicle acquisition competition ran by a Western defence force, with its outcome expected to have a major influence on similar requirements being planned by other US service arms as well as among NATO forces. Tenders for the project close on 30 August.

Solicitation documents released on 31 July say data from the micro-UAV will be able to be “injected into command and control centres, airborne mission aircraft or artillery via digital links in a special tactics machine to machine targeting process to greatly reduce the targeting time.

“When targeting is not immediate, data can be fused with data from other available assets, such as Predator or Global Hawk, to finalise mission planning. The flexibility of a micro-UAV system adds a new dimension to joint warfighting capability.”

Each individual system is to comprise two air vehicles, a ground control station, interchangeable payloads, a carry case and field operator’s support kit. The system is required to be used in both within and beyond line of site modes. The sensor suite and image processing systems are to leverage technologies developed under the USAF’s BATCAM advanced technology demonstration program.

The ground control station will include the FalconView geographic display software suite, the UAVTool streaming video suite, and be able to generate cursor-on-target format messages as part of its standard data outputs.  

A block upgrade approach is planned to ensure the selected system keeps pace with rapidly evolving technology in the micro-air vehicle sector, with Block 0 designating lead systems to be acquired in fiscal year 2007. Future capabilities may include the USAF Research Laboratories voice control toolset

The draft contract is based on a likely delivery order of 314 systems for the USAF, but with tender documents calling for responses based on an indefinite delivery / indefinite quantity contract model to allow other US military customers to leverage off the programme.

The USAF propose to take delivery of 30 systems in FY2007, 75 in FY08, 116 in FY09, 93 in FY10, and an unspecified number for FY11.

The USAF’s Battlefield Airmen Systems Programme Office is running the competition.

A system demonstration is planned to be held at Eglin AFB during September ahead of source selection later this year. The minimum demonstration requirement is based on a 50min serial carried out by one operator. The demonstration timeframe will start with system unpacking, followed by the conduct of a 30min flight on a USAF designated course with waypoint navigation and loiter phases, then air vehicle recovery and system repack.

The acquisition phase systems are required to have a minimum endurance of 30min, less than 2.6kt (4.8km/h) wind conditions, with up to 90min preferred. Flight capability in wind speeds of up to 15kt is required, however.

The air vehicle would be capable of both loiter and auto-tracking modes of operation in autonomous mode, with flightpath planning based on waypoint navigation. The UAV is also expected to be capable of being manually flown. The UAV datalink system is required to be able to support operations at a minimum distance of 5km (2.7nm), with a 20km radius of operations capability expected to be displayed by the mature system.

The baseline system would have a minimum operational ceiling of 10,000ft (3,000m) above sea level, with standard operations based on the UAV flying at heights of up to 500ft above ground level. The UAV is also required to be inaudible to the human ear at distances greater than 500m, with silence at distances of 50m expected to be displayed by the mature system.

Programme tender documents make clear that the system acquired is being viewed as an augmentation or complement to existing surveillance and reconnaissance assets fielded by USAF Special Forces personnel, rather than acting as a replacement for that equipment.

However, “lessons learned from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have shown that existing equipment used by USAF special tactics combat controller battlefield airmen have numerous limitations to include size, range, line of sight and information management.”

US Special Forces currently use Aerovironment Raven and Pointer UAVs acquired from 2002 onwards to meet immediate operational requirements. The BATMAV system requirements document says that those acquisitions represented the only systems available “which addressed mission need, so alternative types of systems were not considered. Size and weight concerns were not addressed at this time.”

BATMAV will provide “time-critical targeting, support assured target destruction, and provide instantaneous battle damage assessment. The sophisticated electronics and guidance package, imaging and sensing systems, and robust datalink were designed to support net-centric warfare when connected to a tactical radio.”

The document adds that “an effective and reliable beyond-line-of-sight targeting system will greatly increase special tactics terminal control mission areas of close air support and individual situational awareness. Additionally, the increased stand-off range provided will mitigate the risk to ground forces and increase their situational awareness. This increased situational awareness will be translated to increased situational awareness for aircraft and in turn improve targeting efficiency, accuracy and survivability.”