Army announced the completion of the latest phase of its Black Hornet Nano unmanned aerial systems capability introduction in late May, following on from successful trials in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area.
The trials, conducted with the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment, were undertaken during a live fire exercise and the Black Hornet system will now be rolled out across the entire conventional Army. This makes Army the biggest user of Nano UAS’ in the world and the first to roll out the technology throughout the combat force, down to the combat platoon level.
But Black Hornet is only one of a range of what Army describes as ‘game changing’ UAS capabilities either in service or being introduced, which will stretch from the combat platoon Nano UAS to Brigade level Shadow 200 system, and it is further experimenting with innovative ways of using them .
The two kilometre-range PD-100 Black Hornet was developed by Norway’s Prox Dynamics AS and initially trialled as part of the Army Innovation Day activity in 2014.
“We brought a handful of systems in and tested them out for a couple of years to make sure we knew exactly what we wanted out of a system of that scale,” Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce, Army’s SO1 UAS capability manager, explained to ADM. “We were really impressed with the feedback on a nano level UAS system.”
The capability has been rolled out under an $18 million Army Minor Project, which covers acquisition and sustainment and was delivered in time for 7 Brigade to use the system during Exercise Hamel.
“We’re rolling it out across the entire conventional Army and we’re the first in the world to do that, we think the technology is so game-changing we wanted it in all of our soldiers’ hands, all of the time,” LTCOL Joyce added. “We’ve bought enough to roll it out across all the infantry battalions and the operators can use it in their garrison locations as well as on major exercises like Hamel.”
Moving up the scale, the AeroVironment RQ-12AWasp AE small UAS (SUAS) is being acquired under the $101 million Project Land 129 Phase 4A, which entered contract last year and will be rolled out to every combat team in the Army. The five kilometre-range Wasp was also initially trialled during Army Innovation Day 2014 and will complement the Black Hornet in the field.
“If we fast forward to when the Wasp and Black Hornet roll-outs are complete, the commander of an infantry company or armoured cavalry regiment squadron out in the field will have at their disposal a Wasp, which can look out for five kilometres and stay airborne for 45 minutes, and they will have a couple of Black Hornet systems they can push out for shorter range reconnaissance tasks as well,” LTCOL Joyce said. “That’s a potent combination of capabilities to have in our combat units, in terms of field robotics, and we’re very excited about it.”
The rapid increase of technology has driven an agile acquisition system for Army UAS’ and the Wasp replacement program, under Phase 4B of Land 129, is already underway and is currently in the post-Gate Zero requirements definition stage.
“Wasp will roll out over the next three years, between 2018 and 2020 and we will aim to replace it after just seven years,” LTCOL Joyce added.
The largest UAS currently operated by Army is the Brigade-level Textron Systems RQ-7B Shadow 200 system, which underwent an upgrade a few years ago to increase its endurance from seven to nine hours. Initially acquired to provide a tactical overwatch capability for Australian and coalition troops in Afghanistan, LTCOL Joyce says that since the 100 km range system was repatriated home, demand for its services is still increasing.
“It is a highly reliable, highly robust system that just keeps on going and it is a highly versatile tool for the Brigade commander,” he said. “Demand for Shadow has never been higher. It’s about Army getting used to these robotic systems and the more familiar our commanders become with the capabilities they offer and gain an appreciation of what these systems can provide to them, they keep asking for more.”
Like Wasp a replacement project for Shadow is already underway under Project Land 129 Phase 3, which has an Initial Operational Capability date of 2023 and by which point it will have been in service for around 12 years.
LTCOL Joyce says there are currently around 15 potential candidates on the global market to replace Shadow and further definition and refinement of requirements will narrow the field down to a smaller number over the next 12 months or so.
“We don’t want to just maintain the baseline of Shadow capability, we want to take advantage of the advances in technology, it’s a growth area,” he said.
Pushing the boundaries of the possible
Army has two further innovative strategies to both explore the realm of the possible regarding UAS operations and to harness the creativity of the younger generations of Australians.
The first is a $1 million Army Minor Project to acquire a large number of high-end Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) multi-rotor drones, which will be distributed throughout the entire Regular Army, Army Reserve and Army Cadets. The DJI Systems Phantom 4 Pro has been selected, under what LTCOL Joyce describes as an informal modernisation initiative.
“I’d much rather have diggers crashing a cheap multi-rotor drone than some of the other platforms we have, either in service or coming down the line,” Forces Commander Major General Gus McLachlan said at EX Chong Ju last month where the Wasp was on show.
“Through our trials we have a good idea of what our combat units can use UAVs for but we don’t quite understand the potential for everyone else – the Forward Arming and Refuelling Points, the logistics units, explosive ordnance technicians, truck convoys, ordnance depots and Military Police for example,” LTCOL Joyce explained. “All of those people have ideas about how they could use a drone, so we decided the best way to test it is to roll out a COTS UAS over the next two years, they can take it out into the field, test it and report back on what works and what doesn’t.
“So that when we start the next batch of projects under the Force Structure Review we’ll have a very good idea of what areas field robotics can be applied to. The potential benefit of creating a drone-literate Army is very exciting and will place us at the cutting edge of identifying and adapting roles for this technology, we’re really proud of the initiative.”
Army has also formalised a drone racing team, which it sees as an opportunity to engage with young people (15-30 year olds) who have taken up the hobby, but also as a potential recruiting tool.
“All of these kids are teaching themselves from watching social media videos and learning things like soldering, computer coding, aerodynamics, electric motor technology and when they fly their drone they’re a pilot and a race car driver. Then they come home on Sunday night and cut their own videos and teach themselves to be multi-media technicians as well,” LTCOL Joyce said. “That group of people are potential Army recruits. Not just as drone operators, these kids are the kind of people we want to bring in as Signallers, Mechanics and Multi-Media technicians as well.”
A further important initiative is the partnerships that are being formed with Australian industry to develop UAS technology which may lead to the local supply of replacements for Wasp, Shadow and Black Hornet.
In April, Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne announced that the Australian Army had partnered with the Defence Innovation Hub to award seeding funding to the tune of $783,000 to three Australian companies and research organisations to develop the next generation SUAS.
Sydney-based JAR Aerospace has been awarded $275,000 to develop a hybrid fixed wing, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAS. SYPAQ Systems of Melbourne has received $258,621 to further develop its Corvo X SUAS; and the University of Sydney has been granted $249,524 for the development of a lightweight UAS which also combines fixed-wing and VTOL capabilities.
This funding was obtained, with Government approval, from the Land 129 Phase 4 budget.
“It’s linked to sovereign industry capability efforts,” LTCOL Joyce explained to ADM. “They are working on contract exploration of what it would take for an Australian company to produce a small tactical UAS to replace Wasp in seven years’ time.”
LTCOL Joyce adds that Army has recognised that the technology in these small UAS systems has arrived and it wants to capitalise on it, while ensuring Australian industry plays a larger role in the future.
“This technology is game-changing. Removing soldiers from danger by putting a robot in their place, while enhancing their situational awareness, makes mission execution better, faster and more effective,” he said. “We want to stay at the leading edge of technology and I think that’s evident in our investment in those small Black Hornet and Wasp systems. It’s evident in the effort we’re putting into informal modernisation through the COTS program and we’re really doing our best to work with industry to make sure that Australian industry is a big part of that future.”
This article first appeared in the July 2018 edition of ADM.