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REPORT ON UNMANNED SYSTEMS – UAV UGV RPAS AUV UAS UUV UMS C-UAS

REPORT ON UNMANNED SYSTEMS – UAV UGV RPAS AUV UAS UUV UMS C-UAS

BY JAMES CARELESS

Team SkyGuardian is the only remaining bidder on RPAS

UAV UGV RPAS AUV UAS UUV UMS C-UAS

The companies and procurements driving Canada’s unmanned systems market

The days of unmanned systems being high-tech novelties are over. In 2023, unmanned aerial systems (UAS, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles/UAVs), unmanned maritime systems (UMS) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) are finding their places in the military organizations of the world.       

“The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, coupled with the war in Ukraine, have highlighted the growing demand for unmanned systems,“ said Andrew Carryer, Director of Airborne Mission Systems — RPAS with General Dynamics Mission System-Canada. “The proliferation of diverse dangerous environments has led to a growing preference for deploying unmanned systems either independently, in conjunction with traditional assets, or in mixed teams of Unmanned Systems (UxS).”

New models of unmanned systems seem to be coming to market on a regular basis. For instance, on August 22, 2023, Iran unveiled its new Mohajer-10 UAV, which visually resembles the General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper drone flown by the United States Air Force. According to the Iran International News website, “Official statements from Iranian media reveal that the homemade UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) has an operational range of 2,000 km and can fly for up to 24 hours. Reports indicate that the drone is equipped to carry missiles, bombs, and hand grenades. It is also outfitted with electronic warfare and reconnaissance systems.”

For a military organization like the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), unmanned systems provide comparatively affordable options — compared to crewed systems — for accomplishing many of their missions effectively, at a time when personnel recruitment and retention are ongoing issues. Here is a look at systems the CAF is considering (and others) across the domains of air, sea, and land.

RPAS 

The term ‘RPAS’ stands for ‘Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems’. When it comes to understanding the Department of National Defence’s (DND) unmanned systems demands and desires, RPAS is the word to know.

“The demand for RPAS is clear at all levels of DND,” said Sean Greenwood, President/CEO of Canadian UAVs. “The biggest issue to general use is better alignment from PSPC (Public Services and Procurement Canada) on how to acquire or rent the systems/services as well as more standardization on the aviation regulations.”

For the RCAF, the term RPAS refers to a specific procurement project now underway. According to DND spokesperson Andrée-Anne Poulin in an email response to CDR’s questions, “The RPAS will provide the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) with a large (the size of a fighter aircraft) and sophisticated remotely piloted aircraft that, unlike popular small drones, will be designed and certified to the rigid airworthiness standards applicable to crewed aircraft. This capability will provide the CAF with the ability to conduct long endurance surveillance missions over long distances, using a variety of sensors. This will help support airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, with near-real time information to inform senior leadership.”

Within Canada proper, the RCAF’s RPAS resource will be used to monitor Canada’s large territory and three-ocean coastline. It will also support security oversight at international events like the G8 summit and CAF operations that support civil authority, such as responses to forest fires and floods.

“In deployed operations, an RPAS will provide commanders an overview of operational situations with near real-time information.” Poulin said. “The system will be capable of detecting, recognizing, identifying, and tracking targets of interest in complex environments. On top of enhancing these capabilities, the system will reduce the risk to personnel involved in combat operations on the ground, as well as aircrew. There is no risk to aircrew life if a remotely piloted aircraft is lost or damaged because of an incident or enemy attack.”

As for the price tag? “The current project cost is expected to be between $1 billion and $4.99 billion,” said Poulin. “A more precise cost will be available once a contract is awarded.”

Initially there were two qualified bidders contending for the RPAS contract. One of these was Team SkyGuardian Canada (now composed of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc./GS-ASI, CAE, L3Harris, and MDA). The other was Team Artemis (Airbus Defence and Space Canada, ATCO Frontec, Canadian UAVs, Israel Aerospace Industries, L3Harris, and Lockheed Martin CDL Systems). However, Team Artemis subsequently withdrew from the RPAS procurement, leaving Team SkyGuardian Canada as the only qualified bidder.

Unless something unexpected happens, it seems reasonable to assume that Team SkyGuardian will win the RPAS contract eventually. “Should the finalization phase conclude successfully, contract award is expected within this fiscal year (FY 23/24),” Poulin said. “Following contract award by the end of this fiscal year, we expect the first delivery in 2028.

Team SkyGuardian’s UAV of choice for the RPAS procurement is the General Atomics’ MQ-9B SkyGuardian. Derived from the highly successful MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ UAV, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian “is the most mature and advanced multi-mission unmanned system in the world,” said Michel Lalumiere, GA-ASI’s International Strategic Development Director for Canada. “SkyGuardian can fly virtually any mission for far longer and farther than most manned platforms. It conducts surveillance and reconnaissance for military commanders for a wide range of applications, such as monitoring ocean sovereignty; providing assistance to other government departments’ operations, which includes fighting wildfires, surveying wildlife, and supporting search-and-rescue, as well as performing numerous military missions.”

“GA-ASI has delivered more than 1,000 aircraft in its 30-plus year history,” Lalumiere added. “Its family of RPAS includes the Predator B/MQ-9A Reaper, Gray Eagle and Gray Eagle 25M, Predator C Avenger, and the new MQ-9B SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian.”

Canada isn’t the only target market for the MQ-9B SkyGuardian. GA-ASI is also providing a variant known as the Protector RG Mk1 to the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force. “The first three Protectors are currently undergoing Integrated Test, Evaluation, and Acceptance trials,” said Lalumiere. “In addition, MQ-9Bs are being operated by the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF), as well as supporting various U.S. Navy exercises.”

The companies who belong to Team SkyGuardian aren’t the only ones hoping to take part in the RPAS and other DND unmanned systems procurements. “We are keenly interested in all Canadian government unmanned acquisitions, such as RCN ISTAR and the RCAF RPAS programs,” said Andrew Carryer, Director of Airborne Mission Systems — RPAS with General Dynamics Mission Systems — Canada (GDMS-C), which provides systems and subsystems for unmanned subsurface, surface, ground, and airborne systems. “Our recently opened RPAS Centre for Excellence in Sherbrooke is supporting the development and maturation of the LX300 [drone]. This Canadian-built, multi-mission and multi-role unmanned helicopter can perform missions over land and sea and is a testament to our capabilities. Our UYS-506 distributed sonobuoy processor is a key enabling technology for the MQ-9B Sea Guardian aircraft, which is currently in use in unmanned maritime patrol missions around the world. We also support the Communications Ground Station for NATO’s RQ-4D [drone].”

: According to Lalumiere, GA-ASI has delivered more than 1,000 aircraft in its 30-plus year history

RCN ISTAR 

RPAS is also a word of great importance for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), although the acronym that matters most for their purposes is ISTAR. Short for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance, this program is meant to acquire UAVs to be launched from the RCN’s Halifax-class ships. The Canadian government also wants the option to operate ISTAR drones from Canada’s Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS), Joint Support Ships (JSS), and Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) ships, as necessary.

“The RCN ISTAR UAV program will provide the Navy with an unmanned embarked capability to provide near real-time, ISTAR information,” said Roberto Pretolani, Rotary Wing UAS Marketing Manager at Leonardo Helicopters. “This capability will provide critical over–the-horizon situational awareness and generate an operational advantage for commanders while minimizing the risk to the frigate or maritime helicopter in support of simple to multi-threat operations.”

There are a range of contenders for the ISTAR contract. They are GDMS-C/LaFlamme Aero using the latter’s LX300 drone; Team V-BAT (Voyageur Aviation, Shield.AI and Kongsberg Geospatial providing Shield.AI’s V-BAT UAV); Canadian UAVs/Textron using Textron Systems’ Aerosonde 4.7 HQ drone; the consortium of Thales, Schiebel, and CarteNav offering Schiebel’s Camcopter S-100; and Leonardo Helicopters proposing a variant of its AWHero UAV.

To put it mildly, winning this ISTAR contract is a big priority for these companies. In fact, “our flagship pursuit is the RCN ISTAR program coming out this fall,” said Canadian UAVs’ Greenwood. “More generally speaking, we are focussed on all RPAS programs that can benefit from the country’s only approved Detect and Avoid (DAA) technology — Sparrowhawk — as well as our airline grade, RPAS tailored, audited and approved operations and maintenance processes. As Canada’s leading commercial RPAS provider with the most expansive BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight) permits issued by Transport Canada, we can give our clients comprehensive capability not just a drone.” For more information on the Aerosonde 4.7 HQ, read the cover story on page 26.

Also competing for the RCN ISTAR contract is Team V-BAT. The Team V-BAT solution is centered around the multi-mission V-BAT UAV, an innovative, agile, compact and lightweight platform that is a fully compliant product offering which will incorporate a significant amount of Canadian content. It is ideally suited for maritime forces to quickly operate in support of dynamic mission sets at sea and its VTOL capabilities allow the V-BAT to safely launch and recover on a wide range of small, medium and large vessels. For more information on Team V-BAT’s solution check out the cover story in Volume 29 Issue 4 of CDR.

“The VTOL UAV solution that Leonardo is proposing to DND is based on the AWHero, the leading 200kg class military-grade rotary wing UAV borne for naval operations,” Pretolani said. “The system’s features include: full marinization, reduced logistic footprint, heavy fuel (JP-5) engine, maximized payload modularity, full automatic deck take-off and landing, and maritime radar for unmatched wide area surveillance.”

MINEHUNTING & DISPOSAL

The RCN is looking to other unmanned systems solutions besides ISTAR. For instance, Kraken Robotics has won an up-to $50 million contract with DND to provide Remote Minehunting and Disposal Systems (RMDS).

According to a December 7, 2022 news release issued by the company, the RMDS contract includes a two year $40 million acquisition program and a five-year up to $10 million Integrated Logistics Support (ILS) program that includes options for additional equipment, spare parts, training, and technical support. The RMDS package consists of Light Weight AUVs and Operator Portable AUVs, all of which will be equipped with Kraken’s AquaPix synthetic aperture sonar, to be used by the RCN on Canada’s East and West coasts. The RMDS also comes with Combat-variant and Training-variant mine disposal systems (MDS), transportable command center (TCC) and a Computer-Based Trainer (CBT).

“Kraken’s partners on this program include Kongsberg Maritime Canada Ltd., provider of HIl’s Mission Technologies Division’s REMUS AUV, thyssenkrupp Marine Systems Canada Ltd (tkMS), providing their SEAFOX mine disposal vehicles, and SH Defense who will provide the containerized multi mission module system ‘The Cube’ as transportable command center and effector/ launch and recovery center,” said the news release.

UGV

The Canadian Army is no stranger to unmanned ground vehicles (UGV), at least when it comes to the remote handling and disposal of explosive ordinance. But moving into unmanned tanks, transports, and other ground vehicles — that’s a frontier that Canada has yet to explore on the battlefield.

This is where Rheinmetall Canada, a member of the German Rheinmetall group, hopes to help. “Since 2018, Rheinmetall has been quite successful in developing the Rheinmetall Mission Master (RMM), a unique family of Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicles (A-UGVs) designed to support military troops in dangerous missions, difficult terrain, and hostile weather conditions,” said Alain Tremblay, the company’s Vice President of Business Development & Innovation. “On top of being valuable for reconnaissance and surveillance operations, the Mission Master platforms can be fitted for tactical overwatch, fire support, medical evacuation, CBRN detection, communication relay, and any other type of missions that may require the support of an A-UGV.”

Each Mission Master vehicle is built to be networked with Rheinmetall’s soldier system and the Rheinmetall Command and Control Software, which are compatible in any user’s battle management system. As for their ability to drive themselves around? “The Mission Master family owes its autonomous navigation and driving functions to the Rheinmetall PATH autonomy kit (A-kit),” Tremblay replied. “Proven, agnostic, trusted, and highly autonomous, PATH enables military vehicles to operate in unmanned mode, freeing up soldiers for other duties and keeping them out of danger.”

Here’s a cool feature: Each Rheinmetall A-kit provides its user with a range of teleoperation options for Mission Master A-UGVs, including a tablet, smartwatch, soldier system, and single-hand controller. Each of these interfaces give the user full access to the AGS’ advanced PATH features such as follow-me, convoy, and autonomous navigation modes.

To ensure that nobody gets hurt by these unmanned vehicles, “each control mode incorporates multiple layers of protection to ensure that the vehicle always operates safely,” said Tremblay. “Moreover, Rheinmetall is committed to keeping a human in the loop in all kinetic operations, assuring that it is never a machine that decides when to open fire.” To date, Rheinmetall’s family of RMM vehicles have been purchased for testing and evaluations by the U.S, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway.

COUNTER UAS SYSTEMS 

The CAF’s push to acquire unmanned systems is being matched by our allies — and adversaries. To defend against the drone threat from this last group, Canada and NATO need counter-drone drones; aka interceptors that can take the fight to enemy UAVs and knock them out of the sky before they can complete their missions.

This is where MARSS can help. They provide end-to-end counter-UAS defence systems including flying vehicles like the MARSS’ Interceptor, an AI-enabled autonomous UAV that can take down several attacking drones during a single operation. Basically, MARSS has developed a true air defence system against drones, akin to the anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence systems in use around the world today.

The key to MARSS’ counter-drone defence platform is its NiDAR surveillance platform. Powered by MARSS’ proprietary Hybrid Intelligence approach (a combination of AI, traditional algorithmic techniques, and human domain expertise), “NiDAR fuses multiple sensors to create a highly accurate and rapid means of detecting, tracking and classifying potential threats,” said Mike Collier, MARSS’ Business Development Manager, NATO. “By integrating with multiple soft-kill and hard-kill effectors, NiDAR also provides operators with full end-to-end Counter UAS (CUAS) protection, able to neutralise any identified hostile drones.”

As ‘space age’ as this may sound, MARSS’ counter-drone defence platform is already being used by DND. “In 2023, MARSS provided its C2 and CUAS platform, NiDAR, for installation on the Combat Support Ship Asterix, which serves the Royal Canadian Navy,” Collier said. “This project included the installation of a suite of sensors, while also integrating with legacy sensors already onboard the Asterix.” Beyond being useful as an anti-drone defence, this technology can also be deployed for applications such as subsea detection and search & rescue. “Looking ahead, MARSS, alongside partners Davie and Federal Fleet Services, will offer ongoing support for the Canadian Navy’s integration of its NiDAR system, and look to expand its presence with partner agencies and Canadian suppliers in the country,” he concluded.

DID SOMEONE ORDER PIZZA?

Okay, it is highly unlikely that the CAF would ever use a drone to deliver pizza like a consumer-focussed UAV delivery system. But this capability could be extremely useful in moving small shipments of medical and military equipment across the battlefield, at no risk to human couriers.

This is where Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) hopes to play its part. On August 29, 2023, DDC signed a contract with Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program to operate and evaluate DDC’s drone delivery platform using this company’s Canary remote piloted aircraft. Under the initial six-month, $200,000 contract, the Canary will be operated and evaluated in a test environment and real-world settings, to see how well it can carry supplies in harsh operating conditions. If the initial tests go well, DDC could receive a 12-month contract worth up to $1 million.

“Drone Delivery Canada is a Canadian drone technology company that specializes in developing and operating complete drone delivery logistics services for various industries,” noted DDC CEO, Steve Magirias. “The company has developed several proprietary drone technologies, including its patented FLYTE management system software, which allows for the remote operation of multiple drones from a central command center. We have three drones — the Sparrow, the Canary and the Condor. The Sparrow and Canary can handle a 10 lb payload with a 20 km range, while the Condor can handle a 400 lb payload with a 200 km range.”

LOOKING AHEAD

All of the DND unmanned systems projects mentioned above illustrate just how central RPAS and other drone systems are coming to the CAF — and the future promises much more of the same.

“We’re not talking about a couple of strategic systems and a handful of tactical systems,” said Canadian UAVs’ Sean Greenwood. “The future is hundreds and thousands of all scales of RPAS. Canada has the space to advance RPAS like no other NATO member. We need to weaponize the air above the tundra and iterate as fast as we can.”

James Careless is CDR’s Ottawa Bureau Chief

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