Systems and Bell Helicopter Textron for air vehicles and avionics; GTE Laboratories and Bolt, Beranek, and Newman Technologies for communications and networking; the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for sensors; and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory for intelligent autonomy and autonomous systems.
The 6.2 funding available was limited to about $150,000 per contract. ONR 351's investment strategy was a low-budget effort and suffered somewhat as a result. As such, it remains a work in progress, with much of the work apparently needing to be completed.
ONR 351's approach to the generation of the vision was quite different from what might be expected from an R&D organization. Rather than extrapolating from the known missions and capabilities of existing or currently planned UAVs (i.e., bottom-up), ONR took a giant leap and envisioned a battlespace of the future filled with UAVs of all kinds, intercommunicating and operating cooperatively in teams, each vehicle completely autonomous and having no real-time interaction with humans. In this vision of the far future, humans would assign missions, but all the rest of the details of UAV flight—target location and engagement, team coordination, reaction to unexpected events, mission replanning on the fly, and so forth—would be handled entirely by onboard intelligent agent software. While cooperating sensors and weapons are characteristic of network-centric operations, it is generally assumed that real-time interaction with human decision makers is an integral part of the concept. The Office of Naval Research's UAV/UCAV vision takes this another step into the future.
While it is undeniable that autonomy will be increasingly used in military operations as the exponential growth of the enabling computer and software technologies continues, the total autonomy of lethal platforms is a difficult concept to accept today. This ambitious UAV/UCAV vision certainly points in the right direction and is appropriate for an ONR 6.1/6.2 program. However, Code 351, because it omits explicit reference to the inevitable evolution through intermediate levels of real-time, man-machine synergy as the technology is proven capable and trustworthy, does itself a disservice by allowing its vision to appear unrealistic.
To flesh out this vision of the future, ONR, with its principal investigators, postulated and analyzed a number of likely UAV/UCAV missions and identified UCAV system concept design drivers. Only fairly high-performance missions were considered. Based on questions by the committee regarding the validity of certain operational assumptions, it was found that ONR had acted on its own in this matter. Although ONR and its contractors certainly had qualifications in this arena, many relevant Department of the Navy stakeholders (i.e., the Offices of the Chief of Naval Operations for Expeditionary Warfare (N85) and for Air Warfare (N88), the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), the Naval UAV Executive Steering Group (ESG), and the Marines—the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation and the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC)) had not yet been involved.
The missions divided fairly naturally into three tiers of performance characterized by the general altitude of the mission, and corresponding classes of UAV were postulated: high, medium, and low. Candidate designs for each class of UAV were created, with examples ranging from a gently maneuvering and long-endurance, high-altitude UAV for collection of situation awareness data to an agile (11-g), short-mission-duration, on-the-deck strike UCAV. Most concepts, including fixed-wing designs, embodied vertical takeoff capabilities suitable for naval shipboard deployment.
From an assessment of this fleshed-out vision, four broad critical technologies were identified: vehicle technology; secure communications and dynamic networking; sensors and sensor systems; and autonomy. Autonomy overlaps the other three areas because each area must exhibit considerable capacity for adaptive behavior and have a control scheme that implements the system's autonomy rules. However, the committee believed that for the future of UAVs in network-centric operations, these four are indeed the broad critical technologies to be addressed, however much autonomy is postulated in the long-term vision.
The individual technology teams then examined each of the critical technologies, specifying the needed capabilities, generally in the form of a useful missions-capability matrix. The committee found no serious deficiencies in the missions-capability matrices. However, the resulting technology development roadmaps fell short of expectations. Clearly unfinished, the roadmaps were general and of very low time resolution (i.e., 5-year intervals were depicted). Lacking details, in their present form they are not yet useful for selecting specific near-term 6.2 projects.