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MILITARY TECHNOLOGY (MILTECH) is the world's leading international tri-service defence monthly magazine in the English language. MILITARY TECHNOLOGY is "Required Reading for Defence Professionals". Follow us on Twitter: MILTECH1

05 May 2016

XPONENTIAL 2016 Day 2 (May 3, 2016) Report

US correspondent Marty Kauchak files the following exclusive report on significant news and developments gained from delegates, exhibitors and others in the defence unmanned vehicle community.

Maritime Domain Unmanned Systems
The US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned air system has completed its operational assessment and is proceeding to so-called Milestone C – an acquisition waypoint which would provide the green light to prime contractor Northrop Grumman (NG) for low rate initial production. Milestone C approval is expected this June.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for Triton contains $(US) 944.1 million, which includes $474.7 million for procurement of two LRIP production units. The Triton fuseleage is being built at a NG facility at Moss Point, Mississippi, and then shipped to another company site at Palmdale, California. Rene Freeland, an Autonomous Systems Communications Manager at the company, noted aircraft construction is finalized and the UAS flight tested at Palmdale. “We’re building four per year,” Freeland added.

This correspondent’s effort to confirm the Triton programme of record with Navy or Pentagon officials this afternoon was unsuccessful. Recent service documents have between 63 and 68 vehicles in the programme of record.   

The Triton is powered by a single Rolls Royce AE 3007 engine. The AE 3007 provides the fuel efficiency required as well as the electrical power necessary for the Navy’s specified tasks.

The Rolls-Royce AE 3007 engine also powers the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, another high-altitude, unmanned aircraft, as well as various corporate and regional jets. The AE 3007's reliability and efficiency have been demonstrated in military and commercial service, with the engine line having topped 50 million flight hours. 

In addition to Rolls Royce, “there are thousands” of other members of the Triton industry team, Freeland added.

Triton will conceptually be teamed with the service’s patrol aircraft on missions, providing another instance of manned and unmanned platform teaming on the 2016 battlefield. Specifically the new UAS will provide the Navy with a persistent maritime ISR at a mission radius of 2,000 nm; 24 hours/7 days per week. However Triton would most likely return to base or be assigned to another orbit if a contact of interest was declared hostile – then permitting a P-8 Poseidon or other armed aircraft to destroy the target.     

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s ADAPTable Sensor System (ADAPT) programme seeks novel techniques and processes to rapidly develop low-cost ISR sensor systems by adapting commercial manufacturing approaches. The primary goal of the ADAPT program is to deliver common hardware and software that can be quickly configured to perform a variety of mission-specific ISR applications.

One deliverable from the ADAPT effort is General Dynamics Mission Systems’ Bluefin SandShark. The product provides one glimpse into the state of the possible in unmanned underwater vehicles.

SandShark is an approximate 15lb (6.8kg) (without payload) open-platform, autonomous underwater vehicle designed for developers. The vehicle combines a low-cost tail with core vehicle systems, with a large modular payload area – essentially becoming an open development platform. Conceptually payloads such as side-scan sonars could be hosted and tested from the SandShark. 

Ethan Butler, the director of Strategic Systems at Bluefin, emphasized the payload interface allows integration with a variety of open autonomy frameworks including MOOS, a set of open source C++ modules for providing autonomy on robotic platforms, in particular autonomous marine vehicles.              

Under the successes of the ADAPT programme, Bluefin delivered an unspecified number of SandSharks to DARPA for further dispersion to military, civil sector and academic entities.

A New Business
About 100 former employees of iRobot’s former defence divisions have “landed on their feet” and are back in the business sector in which they heartily competed at iRobot. The former employees are part of the newly formed Endeavor Robotics (booth 2227), a Massachusetts-based company, led by Sean Bielat, the CEO. Bielat noted the former robotics division’s clean, parting of ways from the former core iRobot business was the right, economic decision. “iRobot was focused on $100.00-200.00 consumer robot goods. We were focused on policies such as ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] and products with high price points – about $20,000,” the executive recalled.

Endeavor Robotics is now in the hunt for a number of imminent and expected US DoD and other organization contract awards. One programme on Bielat’s near-term business horizon is the US Army’s Common Robotics Systems-Individual. “This will support soldiers at the squad level – primarily infantry an d engineers. This will include about 4,000 units,” he emphasized. Bielat gave every indication he is looking to his company’s persistence and success in this sector – stating he looked forward to providing a business program update to this correspondent at this Fall’s AUSA conference in Washington, DC.         
             
System Developments
One of the urgent needs in defense and security organizations continues to be their requirement to protect their facilities, forces and even populations from illicit surveillance and possibility of illicit surveillance and the possibility of physical threats from small consumer UAS or drones.
Battelle (booth 1315) appears to have hit a “sweet spot” in this sector with its DroneDefender counter UAS system. The non-kinetic solution defends airspace up to 400 m (1,312 ft.) against a proliferation of current and emerging UAS threats – quadcopters, hexacopters and others – without risking collateral damage to infrastructure, injury to civilians, and compromising safety.

Kimberly Stambler, PhD, the business development and sales leader in the company’s Mission and Defense Technologies group, noted about 1,000 units have been sold within the US Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security – as the system is designated for federal government use only. Asked if DroneDefender is or will soon be available for sale to other entities, including non-US customers, the subject matter expert responded, “Not yet, but we’re examining other options.”  

The system is easy-to-use – as it is essentially a point-and-shoot system with two triggers – one to provide multifrequency disruption to block the command, control and communications link to the UAS threat; the other to disrupt the threatening UAS’s GPS automated navigation capability. The system is also lightweight – with a notional weight of 15 lbs. – which may vary based on customer configuration requirements.

Battelle has an ambitious roadmap to enhance the product. One key projected upgrade expected by the end of this year will house all electronics on the system.

“We have military customers in eight countries,” Ike Inkwan Hong, the vice president of the Power Solution Division at Kokam Co. Ltd. (Booth 1572) pointed out. It is with this business portfolio and experience that Kokam confidently debuted its new Ultra High Energy nickel, manganese, cobalt battery technology. The new battery is designed primarily for unmanned air and underwater, as well as ground vehicles.

There are some not-too subtle as well as major advancements in this product strategy.

In one instance the new battery moves away from the heretofore venerable lithium-ion battery construct.      

Whereas the typical battery may have a density of about 180-200 watt-hours per kilogram, the Ultra High Energy battery comes in at 265 watt-hours per kilogram. Additionally, the new Kokam battery is 30% lighter than many legacy batteries.

At the end of the day, Hong emphasized that Kokam wants to have the safest with high performance. To meet this product model, Kokam is reported to be intimately familiar with military specifications and standards on battery safety.            

A Smooth or Rocky Path Forward?
Steve Kracinovich, the director of the NAVAIR Autonomous Systems Initiative at US Naval Air Systems Command, may have provided some elucidation to the community’s business development managers and others at his early afternoon briefing about the thorny topics of acquisition reform and related areas of interest.

The Navy manager’s topics of interest intersected common themes highlighted in XPONENTIAL conference room presentations and on the conference floor during the week. For instance, Kracinovich noted the Pentagon’s warfighters’ needs include the need for open modular autonomy architecture to permit rapid integration of third parties.

Kracinovich then suggested a number of acquisition and life cycle management reforms are needed to allow the Pentagon to be more nimble and efficient in its processes. “We need to move away from single winner ‘take all’ awards,” he said, and then offered the department needs to have “continuous competitions using multiple vendors, including small businesses and non-traditional DoD suppliers and service providers” – for starters.

On the surface, Kracinovich’s lengthy list of well–intended suggestions would certainly improve the rigor and integrity of the acquisition process involving the unmanned systems community and other adjacent sectors. Yet, the culture and way of doing business in Silicon Valley and other pockets of unmanned system excellence may contribute to a rocky path forward.

Unmanned system companies are innovative by necessity. Whether in Silicon Valley or London or Perth, they may cooperate to compete for a military or civil sector contract – but they also carefully (jealously?) guard their intellectual property. And while US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is focused on the reforming acquisition processes, those same current and projected acquisition processes are viewed as impediments by industry.             

Photos show:

The US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned air system has completed its operational assessment and is proceeding to so-called Milestone C – an acquisition waypoint which would provide the green light to prime contractor Northrop Grumman (NG) for low rate initial production. Milestone C approval is expected this June.

SandShark is an approximate 15lb (6.8kg) (without payload) open-platform, autonomous underwater vehicle designed for developers. The vehicle combines a low-cost tail with core vehicle systems, with a large modular payload area – essentially becoming an open development platform. Conceptually payloads such as side-scan sonars could be hosted and tested from the SandShark. 

Battelle's DroneDefender counter UAS system is anon-kinetic solution which defends airspace up to 400 m (1,312 ft.) against a proliferation of current and emerging UAS threats – quadcopters, hexacopters and others – without risking collateral damage to infrastructure, injury to civilians, and compromising safety.