An American start-up company is hoping for business in the Middle East from countries and agencies seeking lower-cost ways to monitor terrorist communications. California-based VStar Systems is developing modular and scaleable airborne signals intelligence (Sigint) sensors that are small enough to fit on Class 2 and 3-size UAVs.
"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 with the ability to quickly adjust to new scenarios—because useful Sigint leads to better decisions," said Andy von Stauffenberg, CEO of VStar Systems.
“Terrorists spend $10 on walkie-talkie radios as an alternative to cellphones,” he told AIN, noting that the established OEMs that have previously dominated the sensitive Sigint market have tended to produce larger systems for larger platforms, and then tried to scale them down.
“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.” He added: “UAVs have amazing potential.”
VStar Systems 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.
The company 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 away during a 35-minute flight at an altitude of 400 feet, VStar said.
VStar is asking the makers of small UAVs how much size, weight and power they have available, so that it 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, he pointed out.