Flying Fox, The

Flying Fox, The

Munns, David W

Small unmanned plane is attracting the attention of SEALs and Marines

The Marine Corps is assessing the feasibility of using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to detect explosive threats that lie in roadways ahead of convoys in Iraq. Stored in a case about the size of a golf bag, the Silver Fox easily can be transported in the back of a Humvee, creating a lightweight tool that requires minimal manpower to operate what could become a key asset for troops in combating improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadside bombs that have killed or maimed thousands of U.S. service members in Iraq.

The aircraft’s use for route reconnaissance is indicative of a host of future military applications for multiuser, multimission, lightweight UAVs. Broader uses include port and harbor security and command and control of other UAVs.

“We’re developing it to be an easy-to-use system at the battalion level for the Marines, with two operators and a very small logistics footprint,” said David Ludwig, Office of Naval Research (ONR) program manager for Silver Fox.

With a 2.4-meter wingspan, Silver Fox uses electrooptical and infrared cameras to transmit images back to a user in a convoy or remote location on a 17-inch video display. The aircraft weighs just 35 pounds, is launched from an 8-foot launch platform and requires only two operators for launch. An operator programs its mission routes, and the launch, up to 10-hour mission execution and recovery are all autonomous.

“It could be used as a data relay, for electronic warfare, chemical detection and there are some technologies for counter-IEDs that we’ve experimented with,” said Ludwig. “It’s pretty much reconfigurable for anything. You could even put a mini bomb bay in the aircraft.”

Services have reported success using the vehicle and launching it from a variety of platforms. Navy SEALs, for example, launched Silver Fox from rigid-hull inflatable boats by mounting the launcher on the .50caliber gun mount, which provides a perfect launch platform, according to Ludwig, “because if you have 20 knots of boat speed you’re already at flying speed.”

Silver Fox is currently undergoing flight certification with Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md. Certification is expected in March and will clear the way for Marines to train with and assess the utility of Silver Fox.

The system was used by Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan during Operating Enduring Freedom.

“We’ve learned a lot just by talking to the Marines, having them look at what we’re doing and getting their feedback,” said Ludwig. “The biggest challenge is to make the system easy to operate. All the small UAVs out there are somewhat manpower intensive and require a pretty good sized logistical footprint.”

ONR is striving to make the vehicle as minimal a logistics burden as possible. In addition, the Silver Fox is modular, enabling Marines to quickly replace parts when maintenance or repair is required. ONR is planning three weeks of training for the first Marines who will be deployed with the system as part of a the trainthe-trainer program that will qualify them to train others. Six operators will be trained in the first go-round.

Army special operations soldiers, with no prior experience using UAVs, were trained in 14 days to use the system, according to Blane Boynton, Silver Fox program manager for Advanced Ceramics Research, the aircraft’s manufacturer.

“Their only operation mode of the aircraft is to watch the imagery,” he said. “Control of the sensor itself and of the payload is sent back to the operator.”

The flexible payload base has prompted Department of Defense officials to consider expanding UAV use with signal intelligence operations.

“One of the areas we’re looking at, the digital communications radio, would allow us to relay electronic position-location reporting system radio data” for possible future use as a relay for a larger fleet of UAVs operating in approximate airspace, said Boynton. This would be done by integrating digital communications radios to replace the existing analog radios installed on the craft.

ONR began work on the system in the fall of 2003 and is in the final phases of development. Silver Fox today costs about $60,000 with a full payload. The complete system of three air vehicles, a ground-air station, and launch-and-recovery equipment costs around $350,000.

ONR now is installing a gimbal camera mount, which allows inertial stabilization of the sensors.

“Once the gimbal camera mount has been installed and tested, we’ll be just about there,” said Ludwig. It will be “intertially stabilized so if the aircraft is pitching and rolling, the field of view stays on target.”

The gimbal camera mount is a three-axis mount for the aircraft’s six sensors.

“Gusts of wind or perturbations to the aircraft cause it to rock, which degrades the video image. A stabilized sensor mount would allow us to manually slew the sensor to targets of interest,” Ludwig said.

An additional challenge for Silver Fox is getting the datalink range out to 20 kilometers. After development of the antenna is complete, the aircraft will be operationally deployable.

A follow-on project to this Marine effort is for autonomous water surveillance, Ludwig said, “to be able to have surveillance around ships relieves the operator of the burden of looking at a video screen for hours. So it’s basically automatic detection and tracking of targets in water.”

By DAVID W. MUNNS, Assistant Editor

Copyright Navy League of the United States Mar 2006

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