High flying, high fueling
IT and control projects drive UAV opportunities
- By Doug Beizer
- Dec 06, 2007
Mid-air refueling of jets can be tricky.
Pilots meet the tankers at predetermined
spots in the air, then maneuver into a position
where the tanker's boom operator can
direct the fuel shaft to the jet's contact
point. Once connected, the aircraft must
maintain the tight formation while fuel is
Using a computer instead of a human
pilot to handle the second-by-second
adjustments necessary is vastly more difficult.
But researchers are trying to do just
that, said Daniel Schreiter, deputy program
manager for automated aerial refueling at
the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at
Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio.
If the project succeeds, Air Force's
tankers will be able to refuel unmanned
aerial vehicles, something they cannot do
The project is one example of how
unmanned vehicles are evolving in the military.
Industry experts agree that business
opportunities to develop information-andcontrol
systems related to UAVs will continue
to grow in coming years.MULTIPLE CONTROL
For example, Northrop Grumman Corp.
is developing the Heterogeneous
Unmanned Reconnaissance Team, or
HURT, as a low-cost, autonomous control
system for UAVs that provide information
about enemy positions to troops on the
The Air Force Research Laboratory is
the technical and contracting agent for the
Defense Advanced Research Projects
HURT allows ground forces to receive
video surveillance of the surrounding area
and request specific information about suspected
enemy positions on user-friendly
touch screens. The system autonomously
processes multiple requests and directs the
most suitable aircraft to take a closer look.
The HURT system demonstrated at an
April exercise at Fort Hunter Liggett,
Calif., that it could control combinations of manned and unmanned Army aircraft to
send tactical data in real time to soldiers
equipped with handheld computers.
The exercise demonstrated HURT's ability
to simultaneously control three tiers of
- Tier I flew at 6,000 feet and scanned
areas as far as 100 miles from the combat
- Tier II flew at 2,000 feet and covered
areas 50 miles away.
- Tier III flew at 100 feet over the immediate
Using a software interface, HURT links
different aerial platforms to build a unified
picture of the combat area.
HURT technologies were
developed for the military, but
they could be used for other
applications, such as border
patrol and law enforcement.LOCAL ROUTES
As information technology
solutions designed to control multiple
UAVs improve, demand for specialized
vehicles will grow.
For example, AeroVironment Inc. has
received $19.3 million in orders from the
Marine Corps for the company's
Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air
Each system consists of two Wasp III
micro air vehicles, AeroVironment's
Advanced Battery Charger, spares and support
Weighing one pound with a wingspan of
29 inches, the Wasp III carries one
infrared camera and two color cameras
that transmit streaming video to a handheld
The Wasp III systems will be used at the
platoon level.SELF-SERVICE REFUELING
The mid-air refueling project illustrates
the Defense Department's desire to use
unmanned systems for a greater number of
The system uses a specialized Global
Positioning System receiver and a recently
developed data link on each aircraft. For
testing purposes, Learjets rather than
UAVs are the surrogate receivers.
The tanker's inertial navigation system
and GPS data go across the data link to the
receiver aircraft. The receiver aircraft uses
the tanker's and its own data to calculate its
position relative to the tanker. It then uses
that information to drive the flight control
system on the receiver aircraft.
"The operations around the tanker are
pretty well scripted by the operations community,"
Schreiter said. "We've adapted the
F-16 concepts of operations for our project,
so we've established the positions that the
receiver aircraft should be around the
tanker and we can direct the aircraft to
The GPS/datalink system takes the place
of a pilot seeing the tanker and maneuvering
to the correct position.
At this point, the biggest challenge is
refining the technology.
"We are really merging two
pretty new pieces of equipment:
this precision GPS receiver and
the datalink," Schreiter said.
The UAV has to settle into a
narrow space behind the tanker
defined by the length of the boom
that delivers the fuel. If the plane
can't navigate into that space and stay there
long enough, the refueling won't work.
"From our system, to meet those tolerances,
you have to pretty well control your
navigation control from the GPS system,
via the [data] transmitted across this link,"
This concept of giving UAVs new capabilities
is likely to be a fertile line of business
for years to come.
The navigation technology to get from
place to place is well-defined. "It's this final
rendezvous and rejoin that's unique to what
we're working on now," Schreiter said.Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at
Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.