Paris Air Show

New UAV control system may cut Predator losses

 - June 16, 2007, 11:02 PM

By the time the U.S. Air Force took delivery of its 120th Predator unmanned air vehicle, nearly half of them (56) had been destroyed–some to enemy fire, but most to accidents. No pilots were harmed in the making of this statistic, of course. But at $4 million per Predator, that’s $224 million, a cost that cannot be ignored. And other UAVs have had similar problems.

Raytheon believes that its newly designed universal control system (UCS) will dramatically reduce the loss rates of unmanned systems. The company’s Intelligence and Information Systems (IIS) business took note of the substantial research that blames human factors for many UAV accidents. Raytheon then hired two former Predator operators, put them together with its own systems engineers and came up with a “cockpit” that revolutionizes operator awareness and efficiency, according to the company.

“The Predator ground station displays are ike an engineering diagnostics station, with complicated menus, and “M-keys” with functions that are easily confused,” Katie Heilner, technical support engineer with Raytheon IIS, told Aviation International News. As a former sensor operator on Predators with the U.S. Air Force, she should know. “Aircrews today need superior control interfaces and situational awareness,” said Michael Keaton, also with Raytheon IIS. He, too, is an experienced UAV operator, having commanded a Predator squadron with the USAF.

The UCS is a total redesign of the way unmanned systems are controlled, even down to the ergonomically designed chairs for the operators. They include inflatable bladders that can be individually adjusted, and a memory stick so that each operator can preserve his or her own comfort settings. The same chairs are used by emergency telephone operators in the U.S.

At and above eye level to the seated operator, the UCS provides three widescreen monitors on which a 270-degree synthetic field-of-view (FOV) can be projected.
“This is a huge improvement, compared with the typical 120-degree FOV through the Predator’s nose camera,” noted Heilner. The synthetic view can be updated in real-time from classified databases.

Beneath the widescreens are three more displays, with an associated keyboard and a hand controller that looks as if it came from a Sony Play Station. In fact, Raytheon did borrow extensively from the gaming industry. “They have invested billions of dollars in developing advanced human interface technologies that are simple and intuitive. We leveraged the technology and adapted it,” said Dan Davis, another Raytheon engineer.

In designing the menus, displays and architectures for the UCS, Raytheon adapted elements of its own previous work on the Fire Scout UAV ground control station, and in a laptop-based multiple UAV control system. Air tracks are displayed via the Multi-Source Correlative Tracker (MSCT), another Raytheon product.

Hands-off the Hellfire
Raytheon also designed the Global Hawk ground station. That, though, is a keyboard-controlled fully autonomous high-altitude UAV, while most of the lower-altitude, tactical UAVs are remotely piloted. That’s why a proper hand controller is so important–preferably one where the button to shut down the engine is less than a thumbtip’s length away from the button that fires a Hellfire missile.

Raytheon chose a HOTAS (hands-on-throttle-and-stick) solution because fighter pilots, as well as game-players, are used to it. The U.S. Air Force has plans to convert some Air National Guard F-16 units to the Predator. But the UCS could also control autonomous vehicles like the Global Hawk. In fact, the system can control any UAV that has a NATO-standard vehicle-specific module (VSM); e.g., a translator for autopilot commands. As for the UAV’s sensors, Raytheon has provided the vendors of these “with a very open plug-in, and the plug-ins can be changed without recertifying everything else,” according to Davis.

Heilner likes the way that vehicle status is displayed: “In the Predator station, we got given a line of code, and then we had to look that up in a manual to decode it. Here, we depict the entire air vehicle, with color codes to explain the status of its various systems and parts–green for OK, yellow for warning and red for malfunction. And we can easily call up checklists onscreen.”

A single UCS consists of two separate workstations, fully interchangeable between the vehicle control and the sensor operating functions. One UCS can control up to eight UAVs, with 16 a possibility. The HOTAS controls have been “deconflicted,” to prevent the type of accident that occurred last year in Arizona, when a Predator crashed after handover problems between one control station and another. Davis said that Raytheon is currently exploring whether audio and tactile cues could be added. Automated weapons checklists are another possibility. Raytheon is also working on how best to display the weather– clouds, icing layers, etc.

The UCS already has one useful new aid to UAV control–a predictive box-type symbol that tells the operator where he has just turned the vehicle or pointed the sensor. This is designed to help the operator overcome the time lag between his action, and the video feedback from the vehicle. That time lag can extend to many seconds, when operators are controlling UAVs many thousands of miles away by satellite communications. Predator operations have often suffered from a type of pilot-induced oscillation (PIO) caused by this time lag.

Raytheon is still looking for its first sale of a UCS. Not surprisingly, General Atomics (supplier of the Predator system, including ground stations) has failed to embrace the product. Raytheon plans to demonstrate a UCS in action later this summer, during the AUVSI event at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, where it will control the company’s own Cobra UAV. Raytheon said that flight certification of the UCS would take nine months and will be undertaken as soon as a customer is signed.