As the Royal Navy’s big exercise for unmanned systems Unmanned Warrior closes, TIM ROBINSON reviews what might be the lessons for future autonomous operations from this technology demonstration.

The demo attracted mainstream media interest as well as defence and industry press. (Royal Navy)

Billed as the biggest ever military exercise involving unmanned systems, the UK’s Unmanned Warrior 16 took place in two weeks in October off the West Coast of Scotland.

The exercise was run by the Royal Navy with involvement of other services, as well as over 50 participants from the MoD, industry and academia. It also overlapped with another wargame, Exercise Joint Warrior, which allowed UAVs, USVs (unmanned surface vessels) and UUVs (unmanned underwater vessels) to be trialled in operationally representative scenarios. The missions included GEOINT (Geospatial intelligence), ASW (anti-submarine warfare), ISTAR and MCM (mine countermeasures).

However, it is important to clarify two things. First, despite the talk of ‘autonomous systems’ and headlines like ‘Robot Wars’ – there were no ‘killer terminators’ on the loose in the exercise. All drones taking part were unarmed and none were truly ‘autonomous’ – as in having their own ‘free will’. (As one expert quipped recently, “a drone will be truly autonomous when, after taking off, it decides to defect to the other side”). Instead, with humans always being ‘in the loop’, the autonomy being tested centred on automatic object detection or automatic route-finding. Autonomy in this sense then was looking at where machines can reduce the workload on human operators, not replace them.

Secondly the exercise was not run with a definite MoD procurement programme in mind that companies were competing for. Instead it was a technology demonstration to explore concepts of operations (CONOPS), tactics and technology. The enthusiasm and commitment shown then by industry in participating in a demonstration with no immediate contract resulting from it, is therefore telling as to the wider significance of this event.

Royal Navy – behind the curve?

The US Navy is set to field the Northrop Grumman Triton. (Northrop Grumman)
However, while UW16 is a Royal Navy initiative, it might be argued that the Senior Service has fallen behind other UK services (and even perhaps other navies) in embracing unmanned systems – perhaps why in 2014 the then First Sea Lord Admiral George Zambellas prioritised the idea of this demonstration. While the RAF has flown Predator and Reaper and the Army now operates Watchkeeper, Desert Hawk and Black Widow, the RN’s only operational experience with UAVs has been the Scan Eagle UAV with 700X Sqn from 2013. This surveillance capability, brought in as a UOR (Urgent Operating Requirement) is now set to lapse in 2017 unless it is brought into the core MoD budget or some other solution found.

Even then, it is instructive to compare with other navies. The US Navy, for example, already fields the MQ-8B FireScout as a shipborne VTOL UAV, is about to field the MQ-4C Triton and is working on the MQ-25A Stingray – a carrier-borne unmanned aerial tanker. The US Marines meanwhile, fly the RQ-7B Shadow, as well as the RQM-11 Raven and the Insitu RQ-21A Integrator (Blackjack) - as well as testing unmanned cargo delivery with the K-MAX in Afghanistan.

Indeed, it is not just the might of the US Navy where UAVs are becoming standard. The ScanEagle UAV, for example, is now operated by over 20 other operators, (including the Australian, Italian, Pakistani, Spanish and Tunisian Navies). So, despite 700X Sqn and a couple of technology demonstrations (VTOL and a 3D printed UAV), it might be argued that, before UW16, the RN was in danger of missing out on some of the opportunities presented by unmanned systems.

But Unmanned Warrior was not just a technology demonstration just for technology’s sake. The service faces pressing manpower challenges in the future. Incorporating more autonomous systems to reduce the burden and leaving humans to concentrate on core tasks, is thus not a ‘nice to have’ option for the Senior Service, but an imperative that is focusing minds on how to do more with limited numbers of people. (The RAF too, has a similar problem with the Chief of the Air Staff noting at a recent RAeS/RAF Museum Air Power conference that manpower was the “biggest strength and challenge for the future RAF”.)

Will UW16 allow the RN to accelerate its understanding of unmanned systems, leapfrog rivals and use autonomous systems in the most optimal way to augment its sailors? Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy UAVs, systems and sensors that took part.

Planning in the cloud

Online GEOINT planning and mapping tools from ESRI enabled the many participants to stay up to date (ERSI UK).

As well as being biggest ever gathering of unmanned systems for a military exercise, UW16 was also notable for being the first ever military exercise to be planned in the ‘cloud’ – thanks to Esri UK’s ArcGIS Online geospatial software. This has replaced maps, charts and Powerpoint in organising this extremely complex military exercise and allows users to log-in via a secure web portal to see a constantly updated live plan.

Online maps and charts may not seem like a big deal, but using this content management system (with multiple ‘layers’ of GeoInt data and intelligence) has proved a huge leap in visualisation and collaborative planning. For example, a standard static exercise map would show active airspace areas, with a text box detailing when they were active – leaving the user to interpret when and where airspace is being used. In Esri’s ArcGIS, a time-slider at the bottom of the airspace chart allowed planners to show the CAA and NATS exactly which airspace off the coast of Western Scotland was required each day. What would look like a vast swathe of airspace on a static map, was in fact, smaller ‘boxes’ that became active and moved over time – easing comprehension and facilitating approval from regulators.

However, perhaps the biggest innovation that ‘dropped jaws’ using this digital GEOINT system (which the British Army pioneered in Afghanistan) was in its ability to visualise the underwater thermal layers in 3D - data that was collected by UUVs and underwater ‘gliders’ during UW16 . Thermal layers are important for ASW as they block or distort sonar and thus seeing the actual contours of these layers and ‘sonar black spots’ are the crown jewels for submarine captains and those who hunt them. It is therefore not too far a stretch to foresee that this sort of 3D thermal layer display, where underwater temperatures are monitored by fleets of autonomous UUVS and incorporated into sophisticated modelling of ocean patterns, might end up as an essential map display in ASW frigates, attack and ballistic submarines and even perhaps MPA aircraft in the future.

Watchkeeper gets sealegs

Thales demonstrated a new maritime radar mode for Watchkeeper. (Thales)
Also taking part in Unmanned Warrior was Thales’ Watchkeeper UAV as operated by the British Army. Despite its Army background as a tactical UAS, Thales used UW16 to demonstrate a new maritime mode on Watchkeeper’s I-Master radar – allowing the UAV to detect surface targets from commercial vessels to small fast craft – and cross-cue these to its other EO/IR sensor. Flying from Parc Aberporth in Wales, imagery and data from Watchkeeper was streamed to the ACER combat management system on board a support ship, Northern River, as well as back to the operations room in Aberporth.

This demonstration then of a littoral capability for the Army’s Watchkeeper, (which has an endurance of 16 hours), shows that sometimes it is not new platforms or UAVs that are needed, but just expanding the mission sets and capabilities of existing UAVs and sharing this information with new users or customers. Post-Afghanistan, Watchkeeper has now become much more useful for UK forces.

ScanEagle demos new sensor

Sentient's ViDAR expands ScanEagles field of view. (Sentient)

Another UAV showing off new capabilities at UW16 was the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle, with an innovative 180 degree wide-area ‘optical radar’ sensor called ViDAR. ViDAR, developed by Sentient, is already being trialled by Royal Australian Navy ScanEagles, which has described it as a ‘game-changer’ for its ability to solve a critical problem for small UAVs – that of a the ‘drinking straw’ or tiny fields of view of existing sensors. The 9-megapixel ViDAR uses sophisticated optical recognition to automatically spot objects at sea, even in heavy seas and then allows the main sensor to be cued so a human can make a positive identification. As well as ships, fast attack craft and jetskis, during UW16 the ViDAR-equipped ScanEagles also detected helicopters, other UAVs and a submarine periscope – at one point alerting the human operator while they were observing a land target with the main camera. Small boats representing fast attack threats were spotted at 19nm away behind a headland before they had even had chance to set off, showing the capability of ScanEagle. Sentient says that it is now working on building auto recognition and identification into ViDAR, with the first objects being ‘search and rescue’ targets (eg liferafts). Interestingly this automated wide-area optical search is not just for UAVs – ViDAR is also set to equip the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s new Challenger 604s to augment human eyes and the main Wescam MX-15 sensor.

As well as bringing four ScanEagles (two equipped with ViDAR), Boeing also brought two other unmanned systems to UW16 – the Schiebel l S-100 Camcopter (equipped with Sage ESM and PicoSAR AESA radar) and the Sharc USV. Working with ScanEagle, a Camcopter with ESM was able to cue optical sensors to ID a ship.

Linking sea, sky and space

Boeing foresees one network linking airborne assets to undersea and surface platforms. (Boeing)

The third unmanned system demonstrated by Boeing was its Sharc USV – a fuel-less surface ‘glider’ whose mission endurance is only limited by the build-up of barnacles, (no, really). Developed by Liquid Robotics, this autonomous vehicle, comes in two halves – a low-signature flat surface ‘surfboard’ fitted with solar panels and underwater ‘blades’ that use wave power to slowly power it at around 2kts. The Sharc is fitted with AIS and autonomous navigation software to avoid other vessels and can be fitted with a variety of mission packages including towed array passive sonar, surface sonar, ISR (ELINT) systems or communication relays. During UW16, Boeing deployed four Sharcs in an ASW role with towed arrays, which successfully detected and tracked a live submarine.

In short, a network of Sharcs with towed arrays might be thought of as a mobile, persistent intelligent SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) net – with a swarm of around 40 could be able to detect any submarine attempting to transit through a choke point, such as the straits of Hormuz. The goal here with the Sharc’s slow speed, is not to chase submarines down or engage them itself but to cue manned and armed platforms such as surface ships or a P-8 that a submarine is nearby. Having recorded the acoustic signature of a submarine contact – the Sharc can also transmit that to, say, a P-8 crew – giving them vital intelligence of what they are looking for. Floating on the surface, the Sharc, according to Boeing, would also function as maritime IP network node, allow P-8s, UAVs or satellites to be linked to underwater assets, whether they be manned submarines or UUVs.

Boeing is also working to make the Sharc air-droppable via parachute using an aerodynamic shell that would protect it. While it would be too large for a tactical aircraft (or even a P-8) to carry internally or on hardpoints, it could be rolled out of the back of a C-130 or C-17. One can than imagine how, in time of crisis or conflict, a swarm of Sharcs might be air-dropped 200nm from an enemy port, before slowly ‘swimming’ there to lurk for six months at a time, monitoring underwater, surface and electronic emissions.

Boeing’s grand vision, which it aims to demo more fully in 2017, is to turn the maritime environment into an autonomous network, linking sub, surface & air unmanned vehicles to provide new levels of situational awareness and to cue skilled human operators to only the targets that they are interested in.

Leonardo's Solo proves handy

Leonardo's Solo flew with Osprey AESA and Sage ESM. (Leonardo)

Meanwhile, Leonardo-Finmeccanica brought both UAV platforms and sensors to test at UW16. Participating from the platform side was Leonardo Helicopters SW-4 Solo, optionally piloted helicopter which in 2015, took part in a ship-based VTOL capability demo for the Royal Navy. This year it had been beefed up with new sensors, including Leonardo-Selex’s Osprey 30 flat panel AESA radar, and the Sage ESM as well as the SkyISTAR mission system.

Both the Osprey AESA radar and Sage ESM are now attracting attention for their light weight and compact size, which allows smaller UAVs to carry sensors previously only fitted to larger aircraft. A UAV carrying ESM, for example can get high (extending the detection range of hostile threat emitters) but can also provide another sensor if flying from a surface ship or battle group, to triangulate and thus narrow down the location enemy radars. (It also has the benefit, that if it does wander over a ‘radar silent’ air defence threat, then no crew would be lost).

As well as flying on its own Solo VTOL UAV, Leonardo’s Osprey AESA radar and Sage ESM were also from on the smaller Schiebel Camcopter S-100, brought by Boeing. Indeed, it is significant that the Osprey AESA radar has already been selected by the US Navy to equip its MQ-8C Fire Scout UAV. Another lesson then from from UW16 is that smaller, lighter sensors are now permitting UAVs to tackle missions previously reserved for bigger platforms.


As well as these UAVs mentioned above, unmanned systems taking part in UW16 were Blue Bear Systems‘ BlackStar (used in a collaborative MCM scenario) the Griffin Aerospace SeaHunter UAV and Lockheed Martin’s Indago quadcopter. (above) (Lockheed Martin)

It seems clear then that UW16 will provide plenty of food for thought for MoD, industry and defence analysts for months to come. Despite paper studies and simulations, if is only by getting technology into the field and testing it in the hands of users, that the real opportunities and benefits become apparent – as well as practical drawbacks. For example, British Army manoeuvres in September 1912 saw Blue Forces use observation aircraft to decisively win an exercise against opposing Red Forces. Only two years later, this use of airpower to scout for enemy forces was critical in discovering German forces attempting to encircle the British Army at Mons. The rest, as they say, is history. 

While UW16 may have broken new ground (water?) in the scale and variety of UAS/USV/UUV integration, there remain a few challenges.

One is the obvious one of defence funding. While some of these platforms may appear affordable, the real cost is likely to be in the IT, communications and ISTAR networks to allow imagery, data and intelligence to be shared between ships, aircraft, UAVs, and ground stations. Integration then (especially between bespoke or legacy systems) may be the real cost. It is notable, for instance that the exercise did not include any simulated QE2 carriers and F-35B in this demonstration. Something for UW17, perhaps?

Second, there is the risk of drawing the wrong lessons or not being innovative enough in adopting this new technology. Merely replicating existing manned air/naval missions but with a UAV, USV or UUV platform will not exploit these capabilities to the hilt – and could prove disappointing. Cultural obstacles and ‘we have always done it this way’ may be bigger barriers than technical challenges.

Third, is that while UW16 was billed as the biggest military exercise involving unmanned systems yet, there were some notable platforms missing. RAF Reapers, for example, are busy in operations and not yet cleared to operate in UK airspace. BAE Systems’ Taranis UCAV demonstrator meanwhile, has only flown (so we know) in the remote outback in Australia. Meanwhile, Airbus Defence and Space’s Zephyr 7 HALE (three of which are have been bought by the UK MoD) is still being built at Farnborough. Though this of course was a Royal Navy-led exercise that involved a focus on maritime missions, it might have been useful to explore these other platforms capabilities. Could, for example, Taranis (whose successor FCAS may be an effective SEAD platform) also be used in the anti-ship role (France is already testing maritime integration with its Neuron)? What might the persistent Zephyr 7 (able to stay aloft for three months at a time) be able to do, especially when equipped with a maritime radar? These questions, as well as how the F-35, P-8 and Protector UAV will fit into the future battlespace, will have to be left to any future UW17 or UW18.

In short, the Royal Navy may have been behind the curve in unmanned systems – but UW16 has now catapulted it into one of the most innovative services in the new game of drones.

Tim Robinson
25 October 2016