Canada's Atlantic Littoral ISR Experiment has tested medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV operations in some of the world's harshest environments
The Canadian Forces' continuing experimentation with network-enabled warfare has revealednew challenges to integrating unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) into its inventory, including how to accomplish air vehicle control in the country's far north.
But last month's Atlantic Littoral Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Experiment (ALIX) has also confirmed the potential for a whole new government approach to developing a UAV architecture that meets both civil government and military surveillance requirements.
The ALIX experiment was the most advanced set of UAV trials yet conducted by Canada and used the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) Altair medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) aircraft under a lease arrangement. The Canadian Forces' newly acquired Advanced Ceramics Silver Fox mini-UAVs were also used in land force tests carried out in New Brunswick.
Variety of assets
The experiment also included a Canadian air force Lockheed Martin CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, two prototype high-frequency surface wave radar installations in Newfoundland, the Radarsat 1 radar-imaging satellite, and a variety of Canadian army, navy and coast guard assets.
Unlike Canada's 2003 Pacific Littoral Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Experiment (PLIX) and the 2002 Robust Ram experiment, ALIX intentionally sought to engage non-military users by creating a collaborative information portal. That allowed open access to the exercise for all Canadian government agencies through the unclassified Canadian government maritime communications network (CANMARNET). According to Lt Col Stephen Newton, a senior Canadian air force ALIX exercise planner, the portal "enabled everyone across the government of Canada network to plug in and see what was going on with the UAV in real time.
"Every government of Canada employee could follow along with what was going on with ALIX from his desktop. Hecould follow the UAV around; he could put in a request for information; he could get information out of there; he could see where all the assets were; he could find the payload imagery that was coming up and being hosted."
Speaking at this month's Unmanned Vehicle Systems Canada conference in Ottawa, Newton said the open portal was "a tremendously powerful tool", adding: "A lot of the lessons learnt from the experiment were from this and how to optimise the portal for use, and that is going to be implemented sooner rather than later."
ALIX explored UAV applications in three different scenarios. Scenario One was based on a satellite crash near Pangirtung on Baffin Island on the edge of the Arctic Circle. This was linked to the Canadian Forces' Exercise Narwhal joint forces exercise in August, with other military assets being used to represent a commercial cruise ship in the satellite crash zone, and a foreign-nation research vessel sent to examine the crash.
Scenario Two was a hypothetical United Nations peacekeeping operation conducted as part of the Canadian land forces' annual Atlantic reserves concentration exercise at its Gagetown training range in New Brunswick. However, the 18h 48min Altair flight also included a diversion leg to observe coastline erosion around Saint John for the state government of New Brunswick.
Scenario Three was originally planned as a combined fisheries patrol and counter-terrorist exercise in the Grand Banks and Newfoundland areas, but was broken up into two separate flights because of the complexity of the mission requirements.
The Altair UAV performed one flight under each scenario, carrying a Telephonics APS143-B(V)3 maritime surveillance radar in a large underbelly housing, and an L3 Wescam MA-20 electro-optical and infrared turret sensor. The communications suite comprised an ARC-210 communications relay, Ku-band and Iridium satellite links, and a C-band line-of-sight link. The Ku-band link was routed through the Telesat Canada Anik E1 satellite.
The UAV lease is expected to cost between $C2.1 million and $C2.3 million ($1.6-1.8 million). The air vehicle and its launch and recovery segment were located at the Canadian air force's Number 5 Wing base at Goose Bay, Labrador. After launch, air vehicle command and control was transferred to a temporary remote operations centre at the Telesat Canada head office in Ottawa.
The top-level experimentation architecture was co-ordinated through the Canadian Forces' strategic command centre, which has recently received a joint intelligence fusion capability. Operational co-ordination was carried out by the Canadian Maritime Atlantic headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had been refurbished to support ALIX requirements.
The Canadian Joint Forces' Northern region headquarters was linked into the architecture for Scenario One of the experiment, while Land Forces Atlantic area command was linked in for scenario two, with additions including a new all-source intelligence cell.
Scenario One saw the Altair fly a 19h 30min mission - the longest flight made by the UAV to date. Newton says the mission highlighted major challenges in operating a MALE UAV in Canada's north. The Altair cruises at about 120kt (220km/h), but encountered 110kt crosswinds. Newton says the belly-mounted radar housing, as fitted, "decreased substantially the aerodynamic endurance of that UAV. That is something to bear in mind - especially when you figure out the loss we had in endurance to the benefit we had from that radar."
Although the EO/IR suite performed well, significant problems emerged during the Scenario One flight with the Telephonics radar. Newton described it as "not really a maritime patrol radar as fit; it had a lot of problems with the different modes and essentially was not much better than a search radar below 24,000ft [7,300m)". The exclusion of a pressurised travelling-wave tube meant the radar was also not usable above 25,000ft.
The radar problems were compounded in Scenario One because the Altair UAV could not be flown in icing conditions. "When we launched, the forecast was 4,000ft scattered," says Newton. "When we got there, it was 31,000ft solid down to the surface, light rain, icing and cloud." That meant the UAV had to spend part of the proposed surveillance mission at "30,199ft overhead Pangirtung, looking down at the top of the clouds".
Operation at the edge of the Arctic Circle necessitated the use of a leased 200kb communications channel from the Iridium satellite network to provide UAV command and control "because north of about 66¡ your look angles from satellites get pretty low", says Newton. However, the Iridium channel had insufficient bandwidth to support transmission of imagery.
Newton says if Canada proceeds with a MALE UAV acquisition and plans to use it regularly inside the Arctic Circle, "we have got to figure out what we are going to do beyond 66¡ north". He adds: "Sooner or later you are going to have to get to trusting that thing to go off on its own and come back.
"In theory we could fly it up to the North Pole and back all over the Iridium satellite system. But we just wouldn't get the payload, so we have got to work on some way to do that, and that is one of the tasks we are going to give to Defence Research and Development Canada."
Environmental factors were again a major challenge in the Scenario Three fisheries patrol, a 14h 30min mission in support of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Soon after launch, Altair encountered 80-85kt tailwinds, so its transit time to the Grand Banks, one of the world's busiest fishing grounds, was about 4h. The rest of the mission consisted of getting back to Goose Bay, says Newton. "When you are dealing with Canadian geography, you have got to start working that time-speed-distance continuum and you have got to start thinking the environmental issues."
On arrival, weather conditions over the Grand Banks comprised a solid overcast cloud layer beginning at 4,000ft and rising to the 10,000-12,000ft level. Again the Telephonics radar experienced problems, "not working in the ISAR [inverse synthetic aperture radar] mode, the strip map mode or any of the imaging and profiling modes", says Newton. "It was essentially used as a search radar. The radar also had a track limitation - it could handle only eight tracks at a time. Those who know the area know what eight tracks at a time means in that area."
The environmental challenges and radar problems were compounded by the emergence of what Newton calls "a real world event" during the mission, as well as air traffic control problems. Combined, this led to a decision not to use Altair in the Scenario Three counter-terrorism exercise. "We just said right, there is no point flying this any more. We are not getting any added value out of the radar payload, the weather is forecast to be the same. Let's stop right here and call this a success before we get into a problem we don't want to be in."
The nature of the "real world event" is unspecified, but Newton says it necessitated ending the open distribution of Altair mission data over CANMARNET. "The focus was on CANMARNET so that all the other government departments could come in and play on the same network. The lesson learnt from previous experimentation is just one network, but the problem with CANMARNET is that it is not classified.
"So when a real world event occurs, you have to move off to a classified system. And that is what cost us in the end - a real world event occurred in the third scenario and we ended up moving onto a classified system, which kept us off.
"A key lesson learned was: if you have an unclassified network, you expand who can put information into that, and you are going to get a lot of information, but you have also degraded your security or your ability to conduct operations."
The Altair was registered as Canadian Forces 301 for the duration of ALIX, with basic air traffic control co-ordination during transit flights using the same flight plan-based approach as used for manned aircraft. All Transport Canada flight information regions (FIR) were pre-briefed on the planned sorties to provide a further layer of co-ordination.
"We integrated this with the help of Transport Canada right into the domestic airspace," says Newton. "We achieved file and fly. It took a little bit of work, but in essence we were able to file and we flew this UAV as you would fly an Aurora or a [Lockheed Martin C-130] Hercules through national airspace. We gave it a flight plan and we flew it. It wasn't easy, it took three years of work with Transport Canada, which is where we started out to get to and we achieved it."
Restricted airspace areas were established over the Cumberland Peninsula, Cagetown and the Grand Banks during the surveillance phases. Newton says Notams were considered necessary at those times because "when we were actually on scene and doing the task, you needed the lateral ability to move both horizontally and vertically to achieve the mission".
Despite these arrangements, problems did emerge. In Scenario One, the Altair launched in the Montreal FIR and then transited space controlled by the Edmonton FIR. Despite the pre-briefings and filing of the flight plan, Newton acknowledges: "Somehow we dropped the ball with Edmonton centre. Edmonton centre was not ready for the UAV when it arrived at the wall between Montreal and Edmonton FIR."
Other integration problems emerged in the Scenario Three fisheries patrol flight. Newton says air traffic control authorities monitoring that flight were becoming concerned "with the way that the UAV shifts between modes of control", and this contributed to the decision to end the mission early. "There were some lessons learnt from that and we will take those lessons and put them into any future statement of work that requires it."
About 100Gb of data emerged from ALIX and full analysis is expected to take around a year. However, a preliminary analysis is expected to be finalised this week.
As well as being used to support planning for Canada's MALE UAV acquisition, the ALIX data will also be adapted for use in evaluating other types of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors by Defence Research and Development Canada, says Newton.
"It is a data set to beat all data sets," he adds. "We will be able to plug other sensors in there, work on evaluating different procedures, tools, techniques and platforms, and see if it makes a big difference."
PETER LA FRANCHI / OTTAWA
Source: Flight International