The term ‘battlefield helicopter’ continues to live on and conjure up visions of sleek, fierce looking rotary-wing craft shrieking their way over friendly forces on the ground. Since the 1930s, the helicopter has made its presence felt in the battlefield. It began as a casualty evacuation tool, but has incrementally gained from experience in various scales of conflict including Vietnam, Korea and Iraq to embrace new roles encompassing attack, anti-tank, suppression of enemy air defences, reconnaissance and observation, airlift of troops, cargo resupply, fire-fighting and medical evacuation. Indeed, it has performed all roles a fixed-wing aircraft can except for strategic strike. It was to be expected therefore, that when technology enabled unmanned rotary-wing flight, unmanned helicopters would steadily ingress into battle space.
Advances in technology and metamorphosis of strategic tenets have led to a mutation of the term ‘battlefield’ into ‘battle space’ over the past two decades…
Advances in technology and metamorphosis of strategic tenets have led to a mutation of the term ‘battlefield’ into ‘battle space’ over the past two decades. Indeed, United States (US) Department of Defence (DoD) formally defines ‘battle space’ as, “The environment, factors and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force or complete the mission. This includes air, land, sea, space, enemy and friendly forces, facilities, weather, terrain, electromagnetic spectrum and the information environment within the operational areas and areas of interest.” As is the wont of theoreticians, limitations are being attributed to even ‘battle space’ as a definition of military operational environment in the 21st century.
However, the term ‘battlefield helicopter’ continues to live on and conjure up visions of sleek, fierce looking rotary-wing craft shrieking their way over friendly forces on the ground. Since the 1930s, the helicopter has made its presence felt in the battlefield. It began as a casualty evacuation tool, but has incrementally gained from experience in various scales of conflict including Vietnam, Korea and Iraq to embrace new roles encompassing attack, anti-tank, suppression of enemy air defences, reconnaissance and observation, airlift of troops, cargo resupply, fire-fighting and medical evacuation. Indeed, it has performed all roles a fixed-wing aircraft can except for strategic strike. It was to be expected therefore, that when technology enabled unmanned rotary-wing flight, unmanned helicopters would steadily ingress into battle space; littoral battle space is being included in the scope of this article.
Advances in Unmanned Helicopter Technology
The lure of an unmanned helicopter, which can be programmed and tasked to perform battlefield roles, is self evident. Complementing technologies including real time data links and artificial intelligence are being explored in all technologically advanced nations with Israel leading. As far as advances in helicopters are concerned, the US is notable on account of its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative launched in 2009 to develop a family of military helicopters for its armed forces. These would be categorised into five different weight classifications; but the idea is to converge common hardware (sensors, power plants, avionics, counter-measures) and software solutions. As a lead-in precursor to the FVL, currently a programme called the Joint Multi Role (JMR) is active, the objective being to demonstrate technologies. For JMR, Bell Helicopter is offering the V-280 Valor and a Boeing-Sikorsky team is offering the SB-1 Defiant. The companies have been working on their platforms since they were shortlisted in 2014. The FVL is expected to produce new and advanced helicopters to replace US military helicopters starting 2030s. This long-winded introduction to FVL is injected into our discussion to emphasise the fact that unmanned helicopters are not a part of the original FVL vision.
Leaving the human out of the cockpit also eliminates the need for air conditioning and pressurisation of the cockpit…
However, the US military has not ruled out unmanned battlefield helicopters totally. Autonomous helicopters grabbed military attention when, in 2010, the US Army tested the combination of manned and unmanned armed reconnaissance helicopters leading to a kill rate of 90 per cent of targets, compared to manned helicopter forces that located just 70 per cent. Lt Gen Mike Murray, US Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Programme Development reportedly said, “Personally, I could easily see unmanned rotary-wing aircraft in the future. I think the reality of what we will end up with is ‘optionally manned’ given that there is not a consensus on my opinion.” Earlier, Lt Gen Jon Davis, US Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation, had batted for an optionally manned plan for the next medium-lift, long range helicopter. Thus, unmanned and optionally manned helicopters are both possibilities in the ambit of the FVL, a view that is shared by Mike Hirschberg, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Society International. However, according to Dan Bailey, FVL Programme Director, the initial JMR technology demonstrator helicopters will not be optionally piloted as introducing that new element may delay the ongoing development of demonstrator models (V 280 Valor and SB-1 Defiant).
As FVL approaches consummation, it is possible that autonomous helicopters offering both manned and unmanned flights become available to offer expanded mission profiles as compared to manned helicopters. Already there are interesting developments going on to convert existing manned helicopter models into unmanned ones, for example, the Kaman-Lockheed Martin K-MAX cargo helicopter and the Sikorsky optionally piloted rendering of the UH-60 Black Hawk.
Unmanned Vis-à-Vis Manned
Rotary wing drones, of which quadcopters are perhaps the most proliferate, inhabit the civil and the military domains in huge numbers and in various shapes and sizes. In the military sphere, their advantages are apparent with their use in roles and missions where manned helicopters would expose their pilots to high risk. These include flights over enemy territory, in very poor visibility and weather conditions, above or in close proximity of enemy troops, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) environments and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) tasks et al. Leaving the human out of the cockpit also eliminates the need for air conditioning and pressurisation of the cockpit, oxygen systems, highly expensive avionics, voice communication equipment and navigational displays while reducing the size of (or eliminating altogether) the cockpit-equivalent. Moreover, the unmanned machine can be designed for high manoeuverability and agility with long operating hours without human physiology becoming a constraint. On account of the above factors, the unmanned helicopter ought to be cheaper to design, develop, manufacture and maintain. However, this may be balanced out by the high cost of unmanned control or automation technology. Finally, if an unmanned helicopter gets shot down over hostile territory, the public uproar over a pilot being lost or taken a prisoner is absent.
Of course, there are disadvantages too. If a machine gets shot down, the peril of leading edge technology falling into enemy hands is frightening and dictates that a special operation be considered to recover it or failing that, destroy it. In case of a remotely piloted machine, the control is entirely predicated to unbroken data communication between the controller and the machine and in the case of autonomous operations, the ability to deal with new situations is limited by programmed scenarios. The contrast with manned operations is obvious. While a human brain can assess all inputs from the cockpit and the environment around and take mission and survival critical decisions even when some of the inputs are ambivalent, the unmanned helicopter’s situational awareness is bounded by the artificial intelligence that it houses. For the above reasons, unmanned helicopters have not proved suitable for all the roles that battlefield helicopters perform.
The K-MAX is an illustration of why the cargo role is the most prominent for unmanned helicopters…
Unmanned Cargo Helicopters
The K-MAX is an illustration of why the cargo role is the most prominent for unmanned helicopters. Engaged in re-supply of Marines deployed in Afghanistan, flying to the drop locations through known routes and involving minimal risk to life, the K-MAX has been providing an excellent platform in Afghanistan. Modified by Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace from an existing helicopter model of Kaman, it can perform missions by day or night to precise locations. The K-MAX can deliver a full 2,700kg of cargo at sea level and more than 1,800kg at 15,000 feet and has helped to prove the concept beyond any reasonable doubt. Needless to say, if the cargo was to be replaced by passengers, the use of an optionally piloted machine would appear to be more sagacious.
New ideas and innovations are sprucing up the unmanned logistics helicopter world. The discussion here is not an exhaustive one and touches only some prominent examples. One attractive model of a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft was the tail-sitter which permits take-off and landing from confined spaces and has much more efficient forward flight than a helicopter, but posed immense problems of the pilot’s external visibility and disorientation during take-off. Bell is now exploiting the tail-sitter model to cultivate a cargo carrier which, although technically not a helicopter, will operate like an unmanned load-carrying helicopter.
In another initiative, Aurora Flight Sciences (now acquired by Boeing) is working on Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS), an autonomous helicopter programme designed to meet requests for supply delivery via helicopter which flies to their location with minimal human assistance and autonomously land in an austere, possibly hostile landing zone. Upon delivery, the helicopter will autonomously return to its origin or proceed to another delivery point.
The AACUS-enabled helicopter (UH-1) is fitted with onboard LIDAR-based sensors that enable it to detect and avoid obstacles and evaluate the landing zone and onboard mission, route and path planning capabilities to execute missions; an autonomous logistic operational demonstration was given in December 2017. Other similar successes have been the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk in a fully autonomous mode deploying a fully autono mous ground vehicle under peacetime conditions and with a safety pilot and Russia’s BPV-500 unmanned helicopter with a take-off weight of 500kg and payload of 180kg in autonomous and semi-autonomous modes demonstrated at International Maritime Defence Show, St Petersburg in 2017. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has also announced a successful proof of concept demonstration of Air Hopper, an unmanned cargo helicopter capable of casualty evacuation role.
Battlefield Casualty Evacuation
In 2015, a K-MAX was used in a demonstration of a medical person with a hand-held tablet guiding an unmanned helicopter to locate, evaluate and evacuate a simulated casualty. The idea is attractive inasmuch as it offers the option of evacuating a casualty from life threatening environment without the risk of endangering the pilot. It is even more alluring when one considers the possibility of the same machine delivering cargo to troops engaged in operations and, on the return leg, undertakes medical evacuation.
The need for making drones smaller to avoid detection has led to a blossoming of the tiny UAS market…
The US Army’s Medical Research and Material Command has been examining the potential applications of unmanned aerial drones in assisting combat troops on the battlefield and is currently looking at Dragonfly Pictures’ DP-14 Hawk, a small, fast and agile tandem rotor machine that looks like the Chinook CH-47. It can be used for resupply missions with three-metre accuracy in autonomous mode and for casualty evacuation. Its interior can carry up to 200kg of cargo, but, more importantly, is six feet long and 20 inches wide, just adequate to accommodate one casualty on a stretcher. A similar dual role can be carried out by the IAI Air Hopper mentioned earlier.
Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) is probably the area that is the most benefitted by unmanned craft. Boeing’s Little Bird H-6U is the unmanned version of AH-6i manned scout helicopter with autonomous flight capability, networked payloads and communications. It provides over-the-horizon search, re-supply, communications relay and surveillance capabilities. With a flight ceiling of 20,000 feet and endurance of six hours, its useful payload is 635kg. American Unmanned Systems’ Guardian unmanned helicopter provides full use of multiple onboard sensors and payloads up to 23kg resulting in continuous ISR engagement and quick delivery to operational and tactical forces. It can locate and accurately detect, identify and track targets for five hours on station. These are typical, but not the only unmanned helicopters that can carry out roles related to surveillance and communication.
Although US and Israel are the global leaders in unmanned helicopters, there are other players too. The Polish ILX-27, an unmanned helicopter intended for military, civil and special operations forces, has been developed by a consortium comprising the Institute of Aviation in Warsaw, the Military Aviation Works No 1 and Polish scientific and research organisation Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). With a maximum take-off weight of 1,100kg, it is capable of carrying payloads up to 300kg.
Design of unmanned helicopters for offensive roles has been laggardly…
While scale and size are important from the point of view of logistic and casualty evacuation roles, those related to communication, intelligence gathering, surveillance and recce do not need big machines to achieve gratifying results. Pulse Aerospace that produces VTOL Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), also produces small unmanned craft with payloads varying from a kg to 11.3kg and are ideally suited for carrying sensors such as infrared, multispectral and high resolution electro optical camera systems. The need for making drones smaller to avoid detection has led to a blossoming of the tiny UAS market.
Small is Smart!
Honeywell’s RQ-16A T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) has been in service since 2007 with the US Army and Navy for explosive ordnance disposal. The T-Hawk can conduct aerial searches for roadside bombs and inspect suspicious targets from close range to provide situational awareness. It was deployed extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The PD-100 Black Hornet developed by Prox Dynamics (recently bought over by Flir, a Norwegian drone maker) offers ISR support and is deployed in Afghanistan by UK armed forces. It has a length of 10cm and a rotor diameter of just 12cm; with a weight of 16gm including the surveillance camera. The Black Hornet is installed with a steerable Electro-Optic (EO) camera capable of producing still images as well as live videos that are displayed on a hand-held device. An under-development model will feature day/night video, a metadata and snap shot function, an advanced GPS-based autopilot and functionality in GPS denied environments. The system will participate in the US Army’s Manoeuvre Battle Lab’s Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment (AEWE) 2018 event, where it will take part in the live fire and force-on-force sections. According to Flir, PD-100 systems have been sold to operators in 23 countries.
The Fancopter is another micro UAV designed and manufactured by German company EMT Penzberg for the German armed forces. The UAV performs Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations in urban environments in all lighting conditions. The UAV has a height of 44cm and a diameter of 73cm. The take-off weight of the aerial system is 1.5kg and it can collect reconnaissance data including video images, still pictures and GPS coordinates. The UAV features two contra-rotating main rotors, three small rotors and three landing legs.
Unmanned helicopter systems are getting smaller, lighter, quieter and gaining more endurance and better capabilities…
Spyball-B is a micro-electrical rotary-wing UAS designed and developed by Selex ES (merged into Leonardo), for use by the Italian Armed Forces and NATO Forces. The unmanned air system can be deployed to locate and detect Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)/Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) devices and other potential threats. It can conduct target acquisition, border protection, infrastructure monitoring and surveillance, battlement assessments, crowd control and strategic intersection/crossroads surveillance. It can also perform close range or over-the-hill surveillance and monitoring missions. It has a height of 0.55metre, a diameter of 0.48metre and a maximum take-off weight of 2kg. It can be carried in backpacks and operated by a single person.
Design of unmanned helicopters for offensive roles (attack, anti-tank, air-to-air combat, close air supported) has been laggardly largely due to the technologies related to instantaneous decision-making based on inputs from the battlefield milieu. As artificial intelligence becomes more and more refined, it can be expected that these roles will also mature. In 2003, DARPA and the US Army initiated a programme to develop an Uninhabited Combat Armed Rotorcraft (UCAR) originally named the Robotic Rotary Wingman. Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin were selected to come up with designs, but by 2004, the US Army backed out citing funding problems.
Closer home, China has been working on an unmanned attack helicopter, the AV500W. It has a payload of 120kg and can fly for four hours or eight hours if carrying out only recce tasks without a weapon load. It demonstrated a ceiling of 16,500ft and a high altitude firing test at 14,000ft in October 2017, on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. In June 2016, Chinese V-750 unmanned helicopter had fired anti-tank missiles. It can carry two 50kg anti-tank missiles. This type also was a part of the high altitude demonstration along with the AV500W and the XM-20 in October 2017.
Another interesting unmanned rotary-wing gunship platform proposed by Korean Air with technical assistance from Boeing is the KUS-VJ, based on the MD500. A full-sized mock-up of the proposed product was seen at Seoul Aerospace and Defence Exhibition 2015. Armament options will include rocket pods, gun pods and missiles which, when coupled to onboard systems, will provide a surgical strike capability in enemy-held territory. Service entry is expected in 2020.
The time is ripe for the Indian aerospace industry to get a grip on this segment as there is an opportunity there to seize the global lead…
Unmanned Helicopters for the Navy
It would be hard to associate the helicopter with a nuclear role, but Gyrodyne QH-50C Drone Anti Submarine Helicopter or DASH is claimed to be the first drone helicopter to enter operational service, the first rotorcraft deployed with nuclear armament and one of the first armed UAVs ever. The introduction of Soviet nuclear-powered submarines in the early 1960s had created an immediate demand which was met by the QH-50C, for a remotely piloted helicopter that could operate from smaller, older destroyers and could carry a Mark 57 nuclear depth bomb or two torpedoes. Later, a number of QH-50Cs were used during the Vietnam War primarily for spotting naval gunfire and a few carried guns and rockets. Gyrodyne built 758 of these, most of which went to the US Navy although Japan also operated a few.
The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter designed for use by the US Armed Forces. The Fire Scout is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, aerial fire support and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces. The initial RQ-8A version was based on the Schweizer 330, while the enhanced MQ-8B was derived from the Schweizer 333. The larger MQ-8C Fire Scout variant is based on the Bell 407. Its trials are likely to start in mid-2018. Efforts are on to install a sophisticated Leonardo surface search radar system onboard. The long-range MQ-8C will fly from the decks of naval surface warships to extend the surveillance and reconnaissance range of the Navy’s surface fleet that are operating away from aircraft carriers and land-based aircraft. It is expected to be able to stay on patrol for 12 hours at altitudes up to 16,000 feet, allowing much longer surveillance than is possible with manned helicopters. Japan and Australia have also shown interest in the MQ-8C and are watching its progress keenly.
In 2016, Bell unveiled the V-247 named after its claimed 24/7 capability for US Marine Corps for ship-based expeditionary UAS. When it enters service in 2023, it is expected to have a gross weight of 13,400kg and an endurance of 11 hours with a payload of 270kg.
Chinese development of unmanned helicopters is of concern to India…
Unmanned helicopter systems are getting smaller, lighter, quieter and gaining more endurance and better capabilities. In recent months, their use in countering terror has been notable and successful. The FVL is expected to acquire a texture in the future that leans towards unmanned, autonomous and optionally piloted helicopters to be fielded in the battlefield. Another trend is the experimentation with teaming manned and unmanned helicopters which may creep into the way FVL evolves after the JMR technology demonstrator phase is over.
This write up is not an exhaustive listing of all unmanned helicopters and is only indicative of the trends. Several countries, including US, Japan, Austria, Israel, France and Sweden have already fielded unmanned military helicopters and many more are developing them. There are also several projects such as the DAPRA/Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Ares Project, also known as Transformer which are looking at VTOL capabilities for battlefield machines. South Korea already has a tilt-rotor drone in the pipeline called TR-60. Production is expected to begin in 2024.
Development of unmanned helicopters by China is of concern to India, especially as our own capability in producing similar craft is yet to take off. Advances in rotary-wing design, VTOL and artificial intelligence are on track to produce ever more efficient and effective unmanned helicopters for use in the battlefield. The time is ripe for the Indian aerospace industry to get a grip on this segment as there is an opportunity there to seize the global lead.