Start-up Company Pioneers Small SIGINT Sensors For UAVs

Nov 3, 2017 - 12:17 PM

An American start-up company is developing small, low-cost airborne signals intelligence (SIGINT) sensors to challenge the established OEMs that have previously dominated this sensitive market. California-based VStar Systems is unashamedly aiming to "commoditize" the business, with a modular and scaleable solution that is particularly suited to smaller UAVs. It has already flown a communications intelligence (COMINT) sensor on a manned lightplane, followed by a UAV. It has also gained a demonstration contract from the U.S. Navy to support a high-altitude platform.

"Our goal is to commoditize SIGINT by providing a system that requires low size, weight, and power (SWAP) and comes in at a low cost. With that, we hope to provide military commanders and warfighters the ability to quickly adjust to new scenarios, because useful SIGINT leads to better decisions," said Andy von Stauffenberg, ceo of VStar Systems.

"Ttraditionally, SIGINT is considered as a one-size-fits-all solution," he continued. "But by taking a modular approach, we can provide customers with the right solution at a much-reduced price. Smaller aircraft can carry a single module, whereas for the larger platforms, we are able to provide multiple modules to encompass the full spectrum of SIGINT.” He also noted that modularity simplifies the training process and allows quick software updates “that, with other systems, would typically break the budget.”

VStar has designated its product family MA-X. The first to fly was the MA-C for COMINT that weighed only two pounds and consumed only 25 watts. During its first flight on a Beechcraft Bonanza last November, it tracked more than 1,000 RF signals over a 70-MHz span during one hour, the company claimed. In early 2017, the MA-C was flown on an autonomous VTOL UAV built by the Martin company and designated V-BAT. The sensor collected signals from as far as 20 miles distance during a 35-minute flight at an altitude of 400 feet, VStar said.

“UAVs have amazing potential,” von Stauffenberg told AIN. He is targeting the Class 1- through 3-size UAVs that were previously limited to carrying EO/IR payloads and asking their makers how much SWAP they have available, so that VStar can suitably adapt its SIGINT sensor. Von Stauffenberg told AIN that the U.S. military market is his primary focus, but that “it wouldn’t be hard to get interest from parapublic operators such as those responsible for search-and-rescue.” A UAV searching for missing persons that were known to be carrying a transmitter might be able to locate them using an MA-X sensor, he added. 

VStar Systems believes that its products should be exportable, especially if marketed in partnership with a platform provider. It is planning to fly an electronics intelligence (ELINT) sensor next.    

Von Stauffenberg previously worked for the U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman, where he was a chief engineer on that company’s RQ-4B Global Hawk high-altitude UAV. Northrop Grumman also makes the SIGINT sensor that is carried by the Global Hawk, as well as the U-2 and Predator/Reaper aircraft. By comparison, that ‘high-end’ product—named the Advanced Signals Intelligence Package (ASIP)—weighs 600 pounds, requires many kilowatts of power, and costs many millions of dollars.