Paris 2011: Raytheon offers mobile version of UAV control system

 - June 19, 2011, 9:00 PM

Raytheon’s common ground control system (CGCS) is being cast as an economical solution for controlling unmanned aircraft systems from different manufacturers. This is after it started life several years ago as a tactical control system (TCS) for the U.S. Navy.

In fact, the original intention of the program was to develop a government-owned, joint services ground control system, essentially a set of software tools, capable of operating multiple, different types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). That would offer an alternative to the existing situation: UAVs supplied by different manufacturers, built around proprietary ground systems with separate training requirements and operating criteria, none of them interoperable.

The Raytheon CGCS offers military operators the possibility of significant cost savings, coming with open control interfaces and applications written for multiple, dissimilar UAVs, according to Mark Bigham, Raytheon vice president for Defense and Civil Mission Solutions. The system supports current development of a universal common control system by the U.S. Department of Defense and provides a solution for the present and future proliferation of UAVs.

“Where you have opportunities like that to consolidate around a common, open system versus a proprietary, closed system…that saves a lot of money for the government,” Bigham said, adding, “the government is being held in handcuffs by the current [UAV[ platform primes.”

Raytheon claims the CGCS is the only ground control system in which the U.S. government has full administration purpose rights to the UAV command-and-control source code and interfaces. These can be made available for vendors to develop applications. The CGCS architecture allows flexibility to size the ground station from full-scale cockpit workstations down to handheld controllers, depending on the application.

In 2008, the system, then called TCS, was certified as the first NATO-standard ground control system, conforming to NATO standardization agreement (STANAG) 4586. Under STANAG 4586, vehicle specific modules developed by UAV manufacturers interface with the core control system. Bigham said the modules represent the message layer between the ground station and the aircraft; all other system components are common. Data and information processed by member nation UAVs can be shared in real-time through a common ground interface, supporting interoperability of NATO assets.

“If you consolidate the ground [system ] and if you provide open interfaces that are separate from the air segment, you can…significantly reduce cost and enhance capability,” said Bigham. “Now that we’re entering this era of extreme economic pressure, different [military] buying organizations will have to consider that as a cost-saving measure.”

The Raytheon ground system has controlled several different UAV classes, including the Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, as well as unmanned surface and underwater vessels. In 2006, the system performed the first autonomous shipboard landings and takeoffs of a developmental Northrop Grumman Fire Scout from a moving ship off the U.S. Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

Last year, Raytheon built a mobile, transit case version of the CGCS it is promoting at the Paris Air Show. This version is “about the size of a small office refrigerator” contained in two transit cases that can be deployed in theater to launch and recover different UAS classes and variants, Bigham said. The two cases set up with a triple-head display and operator’s keyboard.  

The transit case option was built to fly Raytheon’s KillerBee UAS, which competed for the Navy’s small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS) requirement. The STUAS contract was awarded last July to Boeing subsidiary Insitu for its integrator UAS.

“Our initial target was STUAS,” Bigham said of the transit case option. “That system fits very well with a couple of different applications in common ground control where you need to have a lightweight, mobile, rapidly deployable capability.”

There are other UAV programs and platforms Raytheon is eyeing for the CGCS. Bigham mentioned the Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (Uclass) requirement; the UK Scavenger ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) requirement; and resupply of the RQ-7 Shadow UAV ordered by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as significant, near-term programs. He also noted a push by the Navy with Uclass and the Air Force with the Global Hawk to separate ground station and air components of the systems as a way to control costs. “We see reasonable opportunities, good opportunities, that would warrant continued investment in this area,” he said.

With the war in Iraq winding down, there will be a spurt in returning air vehicles and a growing need to fly UAVs domestically for training purposes. Further expansion in their use is anticipated once UAVs are cleared by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to operate in civilian airspace. UAV flights in the U.S. currently are limited either to restricted airspace, or by obtaining a certificate of authorization from FAA.

“When UAVs are no longer restricted, what an explosion in the use of UAVs,” Bigham remarked. “I absolutely see a significant increase in demand [for the CGCS] at that point.”