Aviation systems provider Collins Aerospace is flight testing software that will control the US Army’s developmental Air Launched Effects (ALE) concept, including collaborative teaming between pilots in the air and the uncrewed autonomous vehicles.
As part of its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) modernisation initiative, the army is developing new rotorcraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to collaborate with them.
The ALE programme seeks to deliver a fully autonomous UAV system that can be launched from the new generation of army helicopters during flight. ALE vehicles would then provide reconnaissance and battlefield intelligence to pilots and commanders on the ground, plus lethal effects to engage enemy forces.
”ALE extends tactical and operational reach and lethality of manned assets, allowing them to remain outside of the range of enemy sensors and weapon systems while delivering kinetic and non-kinetic, lethal and non-lethal mission effects against multiple threats, as well as providing battle damage assessment data,” according to the army.
The concept is being targeted for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), which will replace the Bell OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter the army retired in 2013.
“ALE is kind of the scout for the scout,” says Dustin Engelhardt, a former army OH-58 pilot who now oversees business development for the ALE team at Collins.
While Collins is not developing the actual ALE vehicle, the Raytheon subsidiary was selected by the army in 2022 to be the mission systems provider for the programme.
That requires developing flight control software that will allow ALE vehicles to operate in a constellation or swarm, without being remotely piloted. The control system must also allow for so-called collaborative teaming, wherein a helicopter pilot can task the UAVs with a mission from the cockpit and then receive data in return.
“We’re really the brains of the system,” says Engelhardt.
That requires developing a robust communication link that is both encrypted and resistant to jamming. It must also be able to communicate with both classified and unclassified networks – a notoriously complex and bureaucratically fraught endeavour.
Last October, Collins flight-tested its developmental software using commercially available small drones at a private UAV testing facility in Pendleton, Oregon. Engelhardt describes those tests as “really successful overall”.
The challenge is complex. Engelhardt says based on the army’s requirements, Collins needs to design operating software that will enable ALE to receive a mission and decide how to best accomplish it, while also being able to respond to developments such as attrition and the dynamic battlefield environment.
“They can deal with degraded [communications], they can deal with members getting attrited, they can deal with new assets being added and continually re-optimising the plan,” is how Engelhardt describes Collins’ goal for the ALE autonomy system.
He reveals the company developed the initial code for that mission control system in just six months. Collins accomplished the feat by using a faster-than-real-time digital environment, wherein a 2h mission can be simulated in just 30s.
“We can run it thousands of times, quickly,” Engelhardt notes.
Such simulations allow Collins to rapidly test changes to the autonomy code without the time, expense and risk of sending up physical aircraft for each adjustment.
Engelhardt says the approach will also allow the rapid integration of new ALE payloads and tactics, based on real world battlefield developments.
“It’s just a really quick way to get those capabilities integrated and delivered out to the soldiers,” he notes.
The goal is for the autonomous flight control software to be “platform agnostic”, allowing it to operate the range of ALE systems the army envisions developing.
While the army is still developing its timeline for rolling out ALE, it aims to field the FVL aircraft that will team with the autonomous UAVs in the 2030s.