Looking at the Future; Autonomous

The Grand Challenge

As a naval analyst looking at major military trends, one of the most cutting-edge and intriguing technologies out there is in the area of autonomous systems.  But are we really leveraging this awesome technology in the most effective way.  Maybe not.

In the face of the most draconian U.S. Department of Defense budget cuts in at least a generation, affordability has become a new watchword, perhaps the new watchword.  While the program manager’s “three-legged stool” of cost, schedule and performance will, and must, always remain intact, clearly, in today’s fiscal environment, cost is a compelling first among equals.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of unmanned – or more properly – autonomous systems (called UxS for brevity).  For these systems, well and truly, are not unmanned, rather, the man has been taken out of the machine and put on the ground, in a command center, on the ship, or elsewhere.  As The Economist noted in October 2011, “Even calling them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) is slightly misleading.  There may not be a man in the cockpit, but each Reaper, a bigger, deadlier version of the Predator, requires more than 80 people to keep it flying.”  That in a nutshell is the issue, and one that is the grand challenge for the future of these technological marvels.

For the U.S. Department of Defense, the sheer scope of autonomous systems – air, ground, surface, and subsurface – has caused the department to issue sequential Unmanned Systems Roadmaps, which, if nothing else, catalogue the various types of autonomous systems fielded and under development by the Services.  This 25-year projection is used by government and industry alike as the definitive guidance for DoD’s multi-billion dollar investment in the scores of autonomous systems it either has fielded today or intends to field in the future.

The most recent roadmap, the FY 2011-2036 Unmanned Systems Roadmap, co-signed by DoD’s Senior Acquisition Executive, Frank Kendall, and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James Winnefeld, is extraordinarily directive regarding the costs of these systems when it states, “Affordability will be treated as a key performance parameter (KPP) equal to, if not more important than, schedule and technical performance.”  This affordability theme builds on a September 2010 memo written by then-DoD Senior Acquisition Executive Ashton Carter where he stated, “Specifically, at milestone A, my acquisition decision memorandum (ADM) approving formal commencement of the program will contain an affordability target to be treated by the program manager (PM) like a key performance parameter (KPP) such as speed, power or data rate – i.e. a design parameter not to be sacrificed or compromised without my specific authority.”

With such clear-cut and direct guidance from DoD, one would think program managers would be on a glideslope to make these autonomous systems as affordable as possible.  While the will is there, they are continuously challenged by the “wicked problem” of trying to do so.  Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon’s deputy director of unmanned systems, addressed this challenge, noting that, where necessary, DoD would cut capability out of UAS programs to bring the program down to cost targets.

While there are many ways for the scores of program managers and thousands of acquisition professionals to keep the costs of autonomous systems in check, unless or until they focus more on the “brains” and less on the “brawn” of autonomous systems, their ability to do this may be limited, if not severely proscribed.  To make these UxS systems truly affordable, they will need to not only take the man out of the platform, but, to the greatest extent possible, take the man (or woman) out of the equation.


The Past is Prologue: Coming Full Circle

One only has to read a few lines of defense media reports of autonomous systems development or industry advertisements regarding a particular air, ground, surface or subsurface UxS to come away with the impression that autonomous systems represent completely new technology, an artifact of the 21st Century, or perhaps the late 20th Century.  But in fact, autonomous systems have been around for over a century.

As with the use of autonomous systems today in Iraq and Afghanistan, autonomous aerial systems (UAS) have led the way over most of the past century of UxS development and the exigencies of wartime have spurred rapid development of these systems.  A large part of the motivation is clear; these UAS (often called drones) can go where it might be too hazardous to risk a pilot in a manned platform.

The earliest recorded use of an unmanned aerial vehicle for warfighting occurred on August 22, 1849, when the Austrians attacked the Italian city of Venice with unmanned balloons loaded with explosives.  The first pilotless aircraft were built shortly after World War I.  The U.S. Army led the way, commissioning a project to build an “aerial torpedo,” resulting in the “Kettering Bug” which was developed for wartime use, but which was not deployed in time to be used in World War I.

All the Services continued to develop various types of UxS during the inter-war years, much of it focused on UAS, such as actor Reginald Denny’s RP-1 target drone, adapted directly from his radio-controlled model aircraft.  Development of, primarily, UAS, continued through World War II and into the second half of the last century.

Compared to today’s technologies used to control autonomous systems, the technology of the 50s, 60s and even the 70s was primitive at best.  In many cases, what was being attempted with drones was, literally, a bridge too far.  In fact, the failure of UAS in those early days confirmed for many that UAS were just a bad idea, truncated UAS development, and spawned the development of entire communities of manned airborne systems.

Nowhere is this truer than for the U.S. Navy.  Perhaps the classic case is the QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) Program.  Briefly: in April 1958 the Navy awarded Gyrodyne Company a contract to modify its RON-1 Rotorcycle small two coaxial rotors helicopter to explore its use as a remote-controlled drone capable of operating from small decks.  The Navy bought nine QH-50A and three QH-50B drone helicopters.  By 1963 the Navy approved large-scale production of the QH-60C, with the ultimate goal of putting three DASH units on all its 240 FRAM-I and FRAM-II destroyers.  In January 1965 the Navy began to use the QH-50D as a reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle in Vietnam.  Equipped with a real-time TV camera, a film camera, a transponder for better radar tracking, and a telemetry feedback link to inform the remote control operator of drone responses to his commands, the QH-50D began to fly “SNOOPY” missions from destroyers off the Vietnamese coast.  These missions had the purpose of providing over-the-horizon target data to the destroyer’s five-inch batteries.  Additionally, DASH was outfitted with ASW torpedoes to deal with the rapidly growing Soviet submarine menace, the idea being that DASH would attack the submarine with Mk-44 homing torpedoes or Mk-57 nuclear depth charges at a distance that exceeded the range of submarine’s torpedoes.

But by 1970, DASH operations ceased fleet-wide.  Although DASH was a sound concept, the Achilles heel of the system was the electronic remote control system.  The lack of feedback loop from the drone to the controller, and its low radar signature and lack of transponder, accounted for 80% of all drone losses.  While apocryphal to the point to being a bit of an urban legend, it was often said the most common call on the Navy Fleet’s 1MC general announcing systems during the DASH-era was, “DASH Officer, Bridge,” when the unfortunate officer controlling the DASH was called to account for why “his” system had failed to return to the ship and crashed into the water.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the abject failure of DASH led directly to the Navy’s LAMPS (Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System), first the LAMPS Mk I system embodied in the SH-2F aircraft, later the LAMPS Mk III and CV-helo programs embodied in the SH-60B and SH-60F aircraft respectively, and today in the MH-60R and MH-60S aircraft.  Collectively, these programs represent tens of billions of dollars invested in manned aircraft, with three to four operators per aircraft.

While it would be too much of a stretch to say none of these communities would have come to exist if DASH had been successful, it is fair to speculate that at least some this investment in manned aircraft would have been steered to DASH and its successor UAS programs a half-century ago had DASH made more of a splash (other than the “splash” of accidentally dropping into the ocean).  Put another way, by the early 1970s the “market space” for single or multi-mission rotary wing systems flying from small decks on U.S. Navy ships was completely filled by manned helicopters.

But today, due to rapid advances in various technologies, we have come full circle as the MQ-8B Fire Scout UAS is a new autonomous system to be deployed on Navy ships such as the LCS to complement and supplement the MH-60R and MH-60S aircraft embarked.  While DASH was a technological bridge too far, the mature UAS technology of the 21st Century has already made Fire Scout a star.


Technology as an Enabler

When most people think of UxS, the word “technology” immediately comes to mind.  And as military futurist Max Boot famously said in his best-selling book War Made New, “My view is that technology sets the parameters of the possible; it creates the potential for a military revolution.”  Indeed, in the past quarter-century, the U.S. military has embraced a wave of technological change that has constituted a revolution in military affairs and created “the art of the possible” and one of the most rapidly growing areas of technology innovation involves autonomous systems.

For autonomous systems, the development and employment of these systems has evolved to the point that they are already creating possibilities that did not exist as little as a few years ago.  This remarkable transformation has been supported by the equally rapid pace of technological research and development taking place in many places, but perhaps most prominently, in industry, often in partnership with DoD laboratories.  At the U.S. Navy’s level, then-CNO, Admiral Gary Roughead, demonstrated his commitment to developing a long-term vision for unmanned systems when he directed the 28th Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Strategic Studies Group (SSG) to spend one year examining this issue.

However, for unmanned systems to reach their full potential, important Command, Control Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) considerations must be addressed.  Simply put, the costs of military manpower mandate that we move beyond today’s “one man, one joystick, one vehicle” paradigm.  If the vision of unmanned systems is to be fully realized, the focus must shift to their “intelligence” – that is, to their C4ISR capabilities – rather than remain on the platforms themselves.  The “way ahead” for future unmanned systems is to enable one operator to effectively control multiple autonomous systems and for these systems to ultimately provide their own command and control and self-synchronization, thereby allowing these systems to become truly autonomous.


Manpower as a “Dis-enabler”

Even after the failure of DASH, the U.S. Navy continued to experiment with fixed and rotary wing drones.  By the mid-to-late 1980s, the Navy was experimenting with fixed-wing drones aboard Navy ships at sea with UAS systems like the RQ-2 Pioneer.  I personally participated in Pioneer testing in 1990 while XO of USS New Orleans (LPH-11).  A three-aircraft Pioneer detachment came aboard for a week of extensive testing, making dozens of take-offs and landings aboard New Orleans.  In the week of testing, only one of the three drones did the “DASH thing” and crashed into the ocean in spite of the furious attempts of the operator to get it safely back aboard the ship.  “Oh, don’t worry, that’s about par for the course,” the Pioneer detachment officer-in-charge assured us.

But what has stuck with me for over two decades after this event was not the Pioneer crash, but – and perhaps presaging where UxS systems are today – the legions of people who came aboard with the Pioneer aircraft, over three dozen of them.  The manpower “footprint” that came with that small detachment, while admittedly including some extra test and evaluation personnel, was enormous.  That may have been affordable over two decades ago – but it is not affordable today in a declining defense budget where personnel costs are the predominant driver in each of the Services’ top-line budget.  Indeed, the indisputable fact remains that the biggest – and most rapidly rising – cost of vehicles, ships, aircraft and systems is manpower, which makes up close to 70% of the Total Ownership Cost (TOC) of Service platforms.

Both former CNO Roughead, and the current CNO Admiral Greenert, have spoken extensively regarding the challenges the Navy will need to address as it integrates unmanned vehicles into its force structure, emphasizing the need to allow one sailor to control multiple systems in an attempt to lower Total Ownership Costs. This link between increased autonomy and decreased TOC is the key to making UxS affordable.

It is not clear that industry is being sufficiently incentivized to limit the number of people it takes to operate a given “unmanned” systems.  But it is imperative that this be done and done soon.  It will be important to leverage the direction in the most recent Unmanned Systems Roadmap regarding affordability by limiting the number of operators needed to employ unmanned air, ground, surface, and subsurface autonomous vehicles.  Unless or until this happens, given spiraling manpower costs across DoD, autonomous systems will become increasingly unaffordable.

While this conundrum is a challenge for all the military Services, it is perhaps most challenging for the Navy.  While most of the support needs of UxS operators for those systems operated from a land base are met “off the books, every UxS operator aboard a Navy ship must be looked after.  Each person has a bunk, must be fed, and generates administrative and overhead requirements, all of which add weight and space and more often more personnel to these ships.  In last generation’s Navy with ships with robust manning, there was some flexibility to somehow make this all work.  But with today’s – and especially tomorrow’s – optimally manned ships the manpower challenge is especially acute.

The Navy “gets it.”  Recognizing that one of the primary missions of autonomous systems is their role as information-gatherers, as part of the reorganization of the Navy staff, the Navy put responsibility and stewardship for autonomous systems under the Information Dominance directorate as part of the Navy’s effort to make information a weapon. The DON Chief Information Officer recently articulated the Navy’s vision for the future of autonomous systems when he noted, “Some type of autonomous analysis needs to take place on the vehicle if we hope to sever the constant link between platform and operator,” signaling the Navy’s realization that increasing investment in C4ISR for unmanned systems to make them truly autonomous may hold the answer to UxS affordability and be the sustainable way ahead for Navy UxS.

The Department of Defense Unmanned Systems Roadmap is emphatic that the Department must, “achieve greater interoperability among systems controls, communications, data products, data links, and payloads/mission equipment packages on unmanned systems including tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination.” This transformation also requires significant increases in the autonomy of autonomous systems.  For the Navy, the full potential to have autonomous aerial and maritime systems reduce overall TOC for Navy ships will not be realized without the concurrent development of the command, control, communications, and computers (C4) technology that enable these unmanned systems to not only communicate with, and be tasked by, their operators but, importantly, to communicate and self-synchronize with each other.


An Affordable UAS Future – “Brains Trump Brawn”

Unmanned systems do have the potential to create strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago – and that promise can be realized with substantial improvements in the C4ISR systems that will allow these systems to achieve true autonomy.  The Navy laboratory community is embarked on leading-edge research to address this challenge.  Some of the most cutting-edge work in this area includes:

–          UV-Sentry: The “UV-Sentry” project is a joint developmental effort between the Office of Naval Research and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.  This program enables cooperative autonomy and autonomous command and control of UxS.  This, in turn, allows for automated data fusion into a common operational picture.  Thus, a constellation of unmanned systems with increased intelligence and the ability to adaptively collect and process sensor data into actionable information operate in a self-synchronized manner without having many operators provide constant input and direction to large numbers of autonomous vehicles.

–          JUDIE: The Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Digital Information Exchange (JUDIE) is a project designed to enable UAS information-exchange as an initial step in enabling UAS to self-synchronize and ultimately work as swarms.  It is an inter-Service project involving all the military Services and is using the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-7 Shadow UAS as test platforms.  Testing began at four locations in 2011 and will continue throughout 2012.

–          MOCU: The Multi-Robot Operator Control Unit (MOCU) is an autonomous systems project that allows one operator to control multiple systems in order to reduce manning costs.  Under the stewardship of scientists and engineers at the Space and Naval Warfare (SPAWAR) Systems Center Pacific, MOCU is a graphical operator-control software package that allows simultaneous control of multiple unmanned systems from a single console.  Given the severely proscribed manning profile for Navy ships like the DDG-1000 and the LCS, MOCU is envisioned to be a strong enabler aboard these – as well as future – Navy surface combatants.

–          UCAS-D: UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator) takes advantage of emerging technology to enable autonomous unmanned vehicles to operate in a swarm.  Under the evolving UCAS-D CONOPS, this swarm of UCAS-Ds would be tasked as one unit with a mission objective and once the human operator selected a mission and communicated that to the swarm as a unit, the individual vehicles would then communicate and self-synchronize amongst themselves to formulate and carry out a mission plan.

Cutting-edge S&T and R&D efforts such as these must be applied to autonomous aerial and maritime vehicles deployed from naval ships as a matter of priority in order to reduce the extent of human operators’ engagement in direct, manual control of autonomous vehicles and thus the number of UxS operators who must be embarked on those Navy ships.  Clearly, this is the only way to make autonomous systems more affordable than the manned systems they replace throughout the Fleet.  If the Navy fails to do this, it may encounter the same pernicious cycle as occurred when DASH failed so dramatically a half-century ago, but this time, it will be with technologically marvelous systems that are rendered unaffordable because of their manpower-heavy footprint.


The Way Ahead

The future for autonomous vehicles is virtually unlimited.  Indeed, concepts for new missions, such as using autonomous aerial vehicles to detect approaching ballistic missiles are being generated by visionaries who have seized on the enormous potential of these systems.  But while their ability to deliver revolutionary change to the Navy-after-Next is real; this process is not without challenges.

This vision must be supported by both a commitment of the top levels of naval leadership and also by leadership and stewardship at the programmatic level – from acquisition professionals, to requirements officers, to scientists and engineers in the Navy and industry imagining, designing, developing, modeling, testing, and fielding these systems.  If the Navy does this well, autonomous vehicles will continue to change the tactics of today’s Navy, the operational concepts of tomorrow’s Navy, and will usher in a strategic shift for the Navy-after-Next.

See our attached U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Article for more.

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