Paris Air Show

UTAS Expands Airborne Reconnaissance Portfolio

 - June 16, 2017, 3:49 PM
This image of a suburban area in Iraq taken by an RAF Tornado illustrates the prized, high-resolution area coverage that the Raptor/DB-110 sensor can provide. From this overview, an image analyst has identified and enlarged a crane and a bulldozer that might be in use by insurgent forces to create roadblocks. [UK Crown Copyright 2016]

The ISR and Space Systems business of UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS) is here at the Paris Air Show promoting the latest upgrades to its strong-selling DB-110 airborne reconnaissance system. In its pod form, UTAS has sold this sensor to nine air forces for carriage by their F-16 fighters, and to a tenth for its F-15s. It has also been installed on the P-3 maritime patrol aircraft of Japan; on the business jets of two countries; and on the US MQ-9 Reaper UAV for two sets of trial flights. UTAS has also provided increasingly-sophisticated ground processing, exploitation and dissemination systems for the sensor from its wholly-owned facility in the UK. 

DB refers to the dual bands of the original design (visible/near infrared and medium-wave infrared); 110 refers to the focal length in visible/near infrared of the sensor when it is set to offer the longest range: from 40,000 feet it can ‘see’ to the horizon – over 200 nautical miles. But it also contains separate, wide field-of-view optics that provide broad area coverage to the side as well as beneath the flight path of the host aircraft. This has proved very valuable in real operations, that are usually conducted from lower altitudes to provide imagery out to 60 nautical miles, from which analysts can identify individual missiles, radars or vehicles.

The DB-110 can be set for high-resolution ‘spot’ collection as well as area coverage, and it also offers target-tracking and stereo modes. Nearly all operators employ the common data link (CDL) to transmit the imagery to ground stations in real-time when required.

One of the F-16 operators of the DB-110 will soon be confirmed as the first customer for a multispectral imaging (MSI) upgrade that UTAS has been offering. The MS-110 extends the sensor’s MWIR coverage and adds collection in five other spectral bands. Multispectral imaging provides color that allows analysts to distinguish between subtle features of a target that traditional gray-scale imaging cannot. Camouflage, haze and shadow may be overcome. Earth that has been disturbed to – for instance – plant improvised explosive devices can be identified. So can tunnels. MSI also offers entirely new operational possibilities, such as the analysis of vegetation for counter-narcotics purposes, and the monitoring of crop health.

Another proposed upgrade replaces the DB-110 optical imaging sensor within the F-15/F-16 pod with an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar. This would allow reconnaissance operations to continue regardless of weather conditions. The radar would be provided by Leonardo’s UK subsidiary, and offer multiple modes including wide-area strip coverage; ‘spot’ coverage with resolution as good as six inches; ground-moving target indicator (GMTI); and sea search. Another existing F-16 operator is likely to be the launch customer for this version, which UTAS has named the Tactical Synthetic Aperture Radar (TacSAR) system.

Disappointingly for UTAS (Chalet 346), the oldest and most extensive user of this sensor may be retiring it in two years’ time. Back in 1997, the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) became the launch customer for what became the DB-110 series, for a version named the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for TORnado (Raptor). The RAF accepted the system in 2002, in time for Operation Iraqi Freedom in March of the following year, when  Raptor-equipped Tornados provide invaluable in identifying targets and providing battle damage assessments (BDA).

Since then, the RAF has deployed Raptor almost continuously on operations over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and more recently Syria. The imagery has been routinely supplied to the US for exploitation by American image analysts.

But the Tornado squadrons are to be grounded as soon as their strike capability has been fully transferred to the RAF’s Typhoon fleet. UTAS has proposed the supply of MS-110 and TacSAR sensors repackaged to fit in pods with the same outer mold lines as the Typhoon’s centerline fuel tank. The UK Ministry of Defence has not yet committed to the idea.