The US Navy’s programme executive officer for strike weapons and unmanned aircraft, Rear Admiral Tim Heely, is flagging further overhaul of the service’s UAV plans to ensure interoperability between existing and proposed systems, and to reduce logistics overheads.

He says that while the USN and US Marine Corps UAV architectures are being increasingly streamlined, a combination of operational pressures and previously separated acquisition efforts are continuing to pose coordination problems.

Speaking 31 October at the US National Defense Industrial Association's annual UAV, targets and ranges conference in Panama City, Florida, Heely said that while the five tier architecture now being developed represented a family of systems, “this family is in dire need of a family reunion. They have all gone off, they have gone to different countries, they’ve populated different places, and now we bring them back together and they don’t recognise each other”.”

He said that the programme office is “driving very hard to pull ourselves back into a group. There are lots of advantages of leveraging off the technology that is already done, having ‘jointness’ not only in the boxes.”

Recent decisions to create a joint programme linking the USMC’s Tier II short range UAV with the Navy’s similar requirements could be followed by other project linkages Heely said. Heely nominated the USN’s planned acquisition of the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Firescout as a potential focal point for “a good symbol of Army and Navy and possibly Marine Corps cooperation on a vehicle”.

The US Army has selected Firescout as its Tier IV tactical UAV system while the USMC is considering the aircraft as part of its analysis of alternatives for its own Tier II vertical take off and landing tactical requirements.

Individual UAV type logistics requirements, including ground control systems and ground handling systems, are emerging as part of the operational burden he said. “We are at the point now where we send an unmanned vehicle into theatre and it comes with a footprint that would almost fill this [conference] room, which is not what the people down there on the field would like.

“We are trying to combine all of that. Ideally we could have a ground control station where we could flip from UAV A to UAV B to C to D to target drone and have the whole thing go on without everybody having to have their own echo system to survive We are working towards that.”

UAV pilot training is also emerging as an area where the USN is facing increasing pressures with anticipated manpower savings not eventuating under current approaches.

Heely said few current generation UAV systems require physical pilot input: “We don’t need pilots flying these things. They have gotten so sophisticated… Most of these are ISR, information collectors. Most of these you put in a couple of coordinates, they fly, do that. You tell them where they are to land and they come back and land. There is very little operator input. So we are toying with how we can get away from the rated pilot, rated aviator, to operate these things.

“That is driven partly because the great myth was that when you get to uninhabited aviation you save all these people. The reality is that if you build an aeroplane, a large tier five [unmanned combat] aircraft which is the size of an F-18, JSF, and you build it to look like an aeroplane and you build it to fly like an aeroplane, and you take a 200 person squadron and your fifteen pilots, if it is just unmanned you can take those 15 pilots and you turn them into operators, you have the same number of people. So the big manpower savings aren’t there”.