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COVER STORY – Aerosonde 4.7 HQ A Shipborne RPAS for the RCN

COVER STORY – Aerosonde 4.7 HQ A Shipborne RPAS for the RCN

BY JAMES CARELESS

AEROSONDE FOR CANADA

Canadian UAVs and Textron Systems are ready and able to provide Canada with the ISTAR capabilities required to keep our country safe. 

In 2015, Canadian UAVs was launched in the Calgary basement of founder and CEO Sean Greenwood. Today, the company has grown to 25 employees and an office/workshop/ warehouse complex in a Calgary industrial park supporting a range of UAV (uncrewed aerial vehicle) products and services. While still a small to medium business, it is one that is exclusively focused on Canada and exclusively focused on UAVs and the missions they serve. This singular focus provides not only a path for innovation, but provides a landing site for like minded professionals, Canada-wide.

Canadian UAVs has distinguished itself by becoming the only Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) company to be given pan-Canadian Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) certification from Transport Canada. It achieved this approval thanks to the company’s in-house developed Sparrowhawk Radar product. Sparrowhawk is a ground-based radar system that provides a Detect and Avoid (DAA) capability for Canadian UAVs’ drones. This capability made it possible for Transport Canada to approve the company for BVLOS flight operations.

“We are the only UAV operator in Canada allowed to fly at night and at a height of 800 feet above ground level, which is higher than other drone companies,” said Greenwood. “Being certified for BVLOS flight, Canadian UAVs’ drones can fly well beyond the visual range of their operators. This allows our UAVs to monitor remote properties for the forestry, mining, oil and gas, and railway industries, as well as government, law enforcement, and military clients.” This is a major benefit to the Department of National Defence, because Canadian UAVs’ drones are not trapped inside of restricted airspace. They can move between civil and military airspace to engage in more diverse missions such as counter terrorism and emergency response.

With its BVLOS capabilities firmly established and government approved, Canadian UAVs has come of age as a world-class UAV operator and service provider. This is why the company’s bid to be the prime contractor on the Royal Canadian Navy’s ISTAR procurement — in partnership with unmanned aircraft manufacturer Textron Systems, maker of the Aerosonde HQ UAV — makes such sense. Short for ‘Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance’, ISTAR UAVs are destined to be operated from the RCN’s Halifax-class frigates, with the option to be used on Canada’s Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS), Joint Support Ships (JSS), and Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) ships.

“We’re bidding on ISTAR as the prime because Canadian UAVs has the knowledge and experience to deliver on this project for the RCN,” Greenwood told CDR. “Having a 100% Canadian-owned company as the prime contractor in a major defence procurement is extremely rare in this country. Usually one of the big multinationals from outside of Canada takes the lead and then brings in domestic suppliers and subcontractors, because the necessary degree of knowledge to serve as a prime doesn’t exist here. Well, that’s not the case with ISTAR: Canadian UAVs has what it takes to deliver on this project for the RCN, using Canadian talent, know-how and resources.”

Worth noting: Canadian UAVs has already worked with the RCN on UAVs under the 2019 ISTAR procurement.

: ISTAR UAVs are destined to be operated from the RCN’s Halifax-class frigates, with the option to be used on AOPS, JSS, and CSC

ONE-TWO KNOCKOUT PUNCH 

There are two elements that give the Canadian UAVs/Textron Systems’ proposal for the RCN ISTAR project the qualities of a one-two knockout punch combination. The ‘one’ is Textron Systems’ Aerosonde 4.7 HQ UAV. The ‘two’ is Canadian UAVs’ years of investment in developing UAV operational knowledge and technical airworthiness, training skills, and successful mission execution. This work began with the 2019 ISTAR project and continues to this day.

PUNCH ONE: AEROSONDE 4.7 HQ

When the RCN adds ISTAR UAVs to its fleet, it will write a new chapter in Canadian naval history. “It will be the first time in five decades that the Navy will have a fairly large-scale air arm,” said Greenwood. (The Cyclone helicopters stationed on RCN ships are actually operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force.) “Adding ISTAR UAVs will provide a new level of situational awareness and surveillance capabilities to the RCN’s ships. It will be a game-changer for Canada’s ability to protect our shores and support our allies — but only if the right aircraft, training and support services are selected for the task.”

The airframe that Canadian UAVs and its partner Textron Systems have in mind for the job is the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ. Readers are likely familiar with Textron Systems’ sister companies such as Bell [civil and military helicopters] and Textron Aviation [Beechcraft, Cessna, and Hawker fixed-wing aircraft]. This is a single-wing UAV with a back-facing Lycoming EL-005 propellor engine for horizontal flight, and four upwards-facing rotors for vertical takeoffs and landings (VTOLs). The EL-005 is exclusively a heavy fuel engine, the same kind of fuel used by ships and soldiers in the field.

This ‘hybrid quad’ approach to UAV flight is a technological game changer. It reduces the aircraft’s mechanical complexity over traditional rotorcraft, making it easier to maintain and service. The hybrid quad platform also provides enhanced dynamic stability which can operate in a complex environment, with better and faster responsiveness to flight control inputs during flight than traditional single engine designs.

This is why the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ’s hybrid quad approach is truly the best marriage of horizontal and vertical flight possible. VTOL capability makes it easy to launch and land the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ on the smallest of ship decks, while the pusher prop engine delivers the range and speed associated with conventional fixed-wing horizontal flight. It is a true hybrid VTOL/fixed-wing aircraft.

In terms of performance, the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ has a 140km Electronic Line of Sight (LOS) range, so that it can stay in touch by radio with its remotely-controlling human pilots back on ship. To provide a true ‘eye in the sky’, this UAV has a density altitude ceiling of 12,000′, and an endurance of up to 12 hours. The Aerosonde 4.7 HQ has a 20 lb payload capacity — allowing it to host a wide range of visual and electronic sensors — while its ‘heavy fuel’ Lycoming EL-005 engine can use a wide range of readily-available fuels such as

JP-5, JP-8, F44, Jet-A, and Jet-A1.

As for reliability? To date, Textron Systems’ family of Aerosonde UAVs have logged more than 600,000 flight hours, and more missions are being flown everyday. Many of these flights are occurring in the harshest environmental conditions on Earth, including those experienced on the world’s oceans and the cold of the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

PUNCH TWO: SOLID KNOW-HOW 

A contract as complex and important as ISTAR demands the best know-how from the vendor who wins it, plus a proven track record for treating drones as seriously as manned aircraft. With Canadian UAVs’ BVLOS expertise and Sparrowhawk radar system, Textron Systems’ Aerosonde 4.7 HQ, and the joint support of this platform by these two companies, Canadian UAVs is the right choice to be prime on this project.

Back in 2015, the idea that a “drone” should be treated like any other airplane was a dubious expectation. However Canadian UAVs felt that aligning itself with the 80 years of manned aviation best practices would eventually open a pathway to an entire ecosystem of UAV use in Canada. By establishing these aviation constructs, Canadian UAVs became the first ‘unmanned airline’ in the country – evidenced by Operational Airworthiness Permits, certified training content, and partnerships with the most discerning aviation companies in the country, such as Lockheed Martin, Shell Aviation, Textron Systems, and Arcfield Canada. This aviation-first focus transformed Canadian UAVs into a heavyweight in the UAV world.

As part of this focus on airmanship, and aviation pedigree, Canadian UAVs embarked on the SkySensus project with Arcfield Canada to create the Sparrowhawk Radar— a ground based detect and avoid radar which would supplant the “eyes of the pilot” when flying over great distances. BVLOS drone flights have to be able to detect and avoid (DAA) obstacles and other aircraft on a real-time basis. Theoretically, one could install a DAA system on the UAV itself, but that would consume payload weight and power on a platform that is already constrained in both regards. In fact, the UAV would likely expend all its payload capacity on the DAA and thus not be useful for anything else — which would defeat its purpose entirely.

This is why Canadian UAVs’ ground-based Sparrowhawk radar system — which is small and portable enough to be mounted on a ground vehicle — is such a brilliant solution to the DAA problem. It provides the kind of DAA situational awareness necessary for the drone to be flown in BVLOS conditions, without consuming any of its payload capacity or power for DAA operations. It also makes it possible for the Aerosonde HQ (and other Canadian UAVs’ uncrewed aircraft) to be flown safely in controlled/crowded airspace. Sparrowhawk is a force multiplier as it opens up civilian airspace as operational grounds for military UAVs.

Add in Canadian UAVs’ proven history of successful UAV operations in Canada, plus its experienced pilots/trainers and 24/7 customer support, and one can see why the company is ready to ‘come of age’ as Canada’s ISTAR prime. “This is a very unique window of opportunity that we’ve been gearing up for,” Greenwood told CDR. “We’ve been doing all of our homework on getting the right people, earning the right permits, and having the right partnerships in order to capitalize on this pursuit specifically. The company is ready for the challenge of being the very best ISTAR prime possible.”

COMMITMENTS AND CONCERNS

Just how committed are Canadian UAVs and Textron Systems to supporting the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ in Canada, so that the RCN can rest assured that they will never be left hanging? Committed enough to open Canadian UAVs’ new distribution centre in Calgary on November 8, 2022. This 3,000 square foot facility has local Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) and Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) training locations right on the premises, as well as order fulfillment and servicing infrastructure for the Aerosonde family of UAVs. These facilities will provide on-time and well supported service offerings for the Department of National Defence (DND) and other government agencies who use the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ — because Canadian UAVs is already flying this platform in Canada on various missions for clients.

“With more than 50 years within the defence, government, and aerospace technologies industries, Textron Systems understands the importance of developing and maintaining relationships to remain a worldwide leader in innovation,” said Gil Garcia, Senior Manager, Global Military Sales & Strategy at Textron Systems. “As Textron Systems continues to develop advanced technologies, we are excited to bring these new capabilities to countries and allies across the globe. Textron Systems is proud to team with Canadian UAVs, a leading provider of UAV technology and services in Canada.”

Supporting both military and civilian clients is nothing new for Canadian UAVs. “Our company has been working with DND for several years to bring cutting-edge UAV platforms to the Canadian Forces,” said John Molberg, the company’s Vice President of Military Programs. “We learned early, and through experience, that proven airframes and agile teams are the key enablers to success for DND. As such, we are proud to team with one of the true world leaders in the military UAV market – Textron Systems. Their world leading technology, robust logistics support and team first attitude are the exact attributes we and DND need to be successful.”

Speaking at the time of the distribution centre opening, Sean Greenwood observed that “hybrid VTOL/fixed-wing unmanned systems are state of the art and Textron Systems has the most proven system in its class. By leaning on their airframe technology and our years of commercial and military operations, we’re able to provide the most advanced large scale data acquisition services on the market. From forest fires to offshore oil spill response, we have the capability our customers demand.”

Speaking to CDR for this article, Greenwood raised concerns that others seeking the ISTAR procurement may lack this same depth of capability. “Unlike our competitor’s UAV design, the Aerosonde system has a very low cost of ownership,” he explained. “It is simple to work on and maintain. Time for maintenance is measured in minutes and not days. Replacement parts are small and simple. This means that the Aerosonde’s overall design becomes straightforward and prone to success.”

Then there’s the issue of expertise, at a time when the Canadian Armed Forces is short of experienced personnel. Under Textron Systems’ ‘Power by the Hour’ approach to UAV operations, the company takes care of keeping the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ ready to fly. “The client simply pays us to get sensor time,” said Greenwood. “We bring in the people, we bring in material, and we help fly the missions for them providing the sensor feeds that they’re looking for from their UAV technology.”

Textron Systems has also been flying missions on behalf of the US Navy for the past seven years. This is why the company developed the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ’s VTOL capability, to make it easier to launch and recover this drone while at sea.

Providing the right level of support to the RCN is very much on Sean Greenwood’s mind.

“I think the Navy’s capacity to absorb this is going to be a fundamental component of the contract,” he said. “Our ability to supplement and support that integration, with respect to the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ and the Sparrowhawk radar, can help the RCN out when they are understaffed.”

For his part, John Molberg sees an opportunity for the RCN to integrate its ISTAR operations with the RCAF’s Cyclone helicopters whenever such ‘teamings’ make sense. (UAV/helicopter teaming is a hot topic in aerospace circles right now.) “Learning how to coordinate those two, both procedurally and strategically, could be a real benefit to the Canadian Armed Forces as a whole,” he said. “Being able to deploy UAVs first could take the load off manned helicopters for jobs that they frankly shouldn’t be doing. Helicopters should be focusing on moving people around strategic military exercises, dipping sonar, and deploying buoys. Drones should focus exclusively on ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) because that’s what they are really good at. Drones can fly for a long time in adverse conditions, and that reduces the risk to human life when compared to manned helicopters.

A CANADIAN PRIME WHOSE TIME HAS COME

Back when he founded Canadian UAVs in 2015, Sean Greenwood was aware that there were common technical and operational airworthiness problems in both civilian and military UAVs which weren’t being addressed by any other companies. So, while bidding on ISTAR was not on the radar back in 2015, coming up with a unified airworthiness solution for both market segments was a priority.

The lessons learned at Canadian UAVs over the years about drone operations has helped Greenwood and his team develop this unified airworthiness solution in Canada, including its work on the 2019 RCN ISTAR project.

The company has been stepping up its capabilities in other ways as well. “We’ve been working with Arcfield Canada on a major ITB investment on the Sparrowhawk Radar system,” said Greenwood. “We’re now in the fourth year of the SkySensus project, which has accelerated our development timelines and also allowed us to expand. As well, we’ve been able to get a Canada-wide BVLOS flight permit. So anywhere in Canada — outside of Class C controlled airspace or Class F military airspace — we’re allowed to fly under standard BVLOS conditions. In 2021, we became the Lockheed Martin UAV reseller for Canada. And then in 2022, we formally partnered with Textron Systems to go after the ISTAR procurement and others.”

Thanks to all of these efforts, Canadian UAVs is a company that has what it takes to be the ISTAR prime, he concluded. “We didn’t plan to come to this point, but it seems like everything that we’ve done at Canadian UAVs has brought us to this moment,” said Greenwood. “We have the expertise, the people, the hardware, and the right partner to give the RCN what it needs in an ISTAR platform. We are ready and able to provide Canada with the ISTAR capabilities we need to keep our country safe. We are one nation, with one mission.”

James Careless is CDR’s Ottawa Bureau Chief

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