WEAPONRY AND EQUIPMENT: New Roles for Unmanned Vehicles

February 3, 2011 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

Keep it simple and inexpensive and …

A Raven UAS is launched during a demo at the National Training Center in Ft. Irwin, Calif. (U.S. Army photo by D. Myles Cullen)

The U.S. military foresees new jobs and new challenges for unmanned systems (robotic vehicles that operate on land, air and water – and underwater) in the next 10 to 20 years: from remotely-controlled cargo-carrying helicopters to robots that can evacuate wounded troops from the battle line.

But Pentagon planners told an industry gathering in Washington this week that they also anticipate flat defense budgets – if not funding cuts – in the near term, so those robots can’t be too expensive, too complicated or too specialized.

Representatives from all the armed services told the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which just ended its three-day Program Review, what they need and what programs they’re planning or already working on.

The Army says it is exploring the use of small unmanned aerial systems – hand-launched little aircraft that fit in a backpack – that can give company and even platoon-sized units a constant view of what or who is around them. “A pair of flying binoculars,” is how Lt. Col. James Cutting, director of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for the Army’s G-3, operations office, puts it.

There’s “an insatiable demand for all kinds of airborne ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) today,” Cutting adds.

Pentagon planners are also looking at testing ground troops’ abilities to engage opposing forces that also have UAS capability. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. drones have owned the airspace but that may not always be the case in future conflicts, they say.

Small unmanned ground vehicles are being studied for their effectiveness in detecting hidden underground tunnels. Amy Clymer, operational manager for Rapid Reaction Tunnel Detection at the Defense Department’s Joint Capabilities Technology Development Program, says robots being tested in Arizona can slip through an 8-inch diameter drill hole, descend on a tether into a tunnel, change shape into a small wheeled or tracked vehicle equipped with lights and a video camera, explore the tunnel and then compress to their original size for extraction through the drill hole.

Clymer says 129 illegal tunnels have been detected under the Mexico-U. S. border since 1990, with 69 discovered in the vicinity of Nogales, Arizona alone – 47 of them found between 2008-2010.

The tunnels are used primarily for moving illegal drugs although there could be other uses such as people smuggling into the U.S. and illegal weapons smuggling out of the U.S. into Mexico.

Tunnel robots have been used to detect contraband smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. They also have the potential to help detect tunnels in countries where secret tunnels have been a problem in the past including Iraq, Bolivia, Afghanistan and under the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, Clymer said.

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Entry filed under: Homeland Security, National Security and Defense, Special Operations, Unmanned Aircraft, Unmanned Systems, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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