Military Embedded Systems

The fresh maintenance and sustainment challenges as UAVs take off in defense


March 21, 2023

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chris Jacobs

The use of unmanned systems in defense is increasing: With the intricacy and operational complexity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) growing even as footprints shrink, support and sustainment for these assets are becoming high priorities. Supporting software must link data throughout the processes of stakeholders of OEMs, defense forces, and defense contractors before manufacturers can realize the full possibilities of unmanned vehicles, both large and small.

In comparison to the commercial aviation sector in which unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are viewed as emerging pieces of equipment and regulatory barriers must still be passed, the defense sector has been using autonomous vehicles for some time, with constant developments and improvements in complexity and operational ability.

In military-frontline operations, UAVs and drones are already being utilized, differing in size, but still playing pivotal operational roles – from small handheld surveillance drones to extensive remote-controlled UAVs with increased capacity for payloads. The next generation of UAVs is ahead of us, with work starting on autonomously operated air vehicles including complex projects like the Boeing Loyal Wingman. Such advanced aircraft will be capable of performing autonomous missions with help from artificial intelligence (AI) or the ability to fly in conjunction with manned aircraft.

This second example of the next generation of military UAVs is known as manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T), which comprises autonomous aircraft cooperating with manned assets, with each aircraft performing its own specific mission. MUM-T is defined by the U.S. Army Aviation Center as “The cooperative employment of unmanned assets with traditional manned platforms, providing the unique capabilities of each system to be leveraged for the same mission. The primary benefit of this employment concept is to transmit live intelligence captured from the unmanned system to the manned asset, providing the manned operator with improved situational awareness without placing them at risk.”

UAVs and reduced SWaP

As well as removing human soldiers from harm, autonomous unmanned systems also bring about other important operational advantages. For instance, since UAVs are unencumbered by life-support systems such as breathing apparatus and ejection seats, they can carry larger payloads with sensors for improved intelligence and reconnaissance, carry more fuel, or shrink their footprint altogether. As defense forces move to a more distributed operational model to counter wide-reaching threats, there are budget and logistics benefits to be gained as well.

Expendable UAVs, such as the European-produced Black Hornet microdrones, will have a much lower price point than the more advanced systems. These are very small, 16 cm in length and with a mass of only 32 g and are designed to fly within feet of enemy soldiers and enter buildings to spy on positions without being detected – and come with a price tag of around $10,000 per unit. (Figure 1.)

[Figure 1 | A Black Hornet nano-helicopter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can provide troops on the ground with vital situational awareness. The Black Hornet – equipped with a tiny camera enabling reliable full-motion video and still images – can be used to peer around corners or over walls and other obstacles to identify hidden dangers, with the resulting images displayed on a handheld terminal. FLIR photo.]

Unmanned systems, whatever their size and role, open up many new deployment options. Fully autonomous equipment has the ability to return to base for reuse after each mission, and the locations of these bases can be more dispersed to address a changing threat environment. Such a situation could include setting up rugged, dispersed forward-operating bases, in some cases using rough runways that would be too unsafe for manned landing.

Mission success with a smaller logistics footprint

These widened deployment options are completely in line with the U.S. Air Force Agile Combat Employment initiative that states its aim to “reduce the number of Airmen in harm’s way in austere environments.” Consider the maintenance sustainment associated with the MQ-9 Reaper – known to be a very powerful weapons-carrying option – a UAV capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations.

A fully operational MQ-9 Reaper system comprises a sensor/weapon-equipped aircraft, ground-control station, Predator Primary Satellite Link, and spare equipment along with operations and maintenance crews for deployed 24-hour missions. The basic crew of two personnel consists of a rated pilot to control the aircraft and command the mission, plus an enlisted aircrew member to operate sensors and guide weapons. Furthermore, the remotely piloted aircraft can be disassembled and loaded into a single container for deployment worldwide. Fewer personnel needed, smaller footprint.

Logistics, sustainment, and support in the spotlight

Autonomous systems will only continue to mature and become even more important to a modern fighting force. The inevitable result is that sustainment, support, and maintenance become key considerations to keep these assets available throughout their life cycle – wherever they’re deployed.

Maintenance support must ensure services are provided for optimal performance of the autonomous platforms, payloads, and related components throughout the asset’s life cycle. A quick look through recent unmanned systems’ RFPs and SOWs from various military forces shows the complexity of UAV logistics and sustainment activities.

The requirements are many and wide-ranging. Actions may include, but are not limited to:

  • Ongoing support issues: life cycle sustainment, supply support, depot-level support.
  • Repair and maintenance issues: repair and refurbishment; alteration installation; logistics and sustainment analyses; maintenance planning, management, and services; packaging, handling, and storage; and transportation.
  • Training and obsolescence management: maintenance training and support, obsolescence management, Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS) support, inventory and spares management.

A consistent digital backbone must underpin the UAV life cycle

Whether these UAVs are supported and maintained by the OEMs, third-party defense contractors, or defense forces themselves, a next-generation military asset requires next-generation software to manage maintenance throughout its life cycle. There needs to be an end-to-end digital thread to link all data sources and stakeholders in the military UAV ecosystem. This means UAV system design, manufacturing, supply chain, and aftermarket services need a digital backbone capable to support sustainment now and into the future.

From that long list of requirements around UAV maintenance and support, it’s clear that breadth of functionality will be a key component – and this breadth needs to be reflected in supporting software as well. Data collection, analysis, and execution will be vital to ensure the readiness of UAVs. Much of this can be achieved with the right underlying software support to ensure the right tasks are assigned at the right time for every UAV – for planned instances, but also during unplanned scenarios using advanced data analytics and forecasting.

Accelerating cybersecurity

Cyberattack susceptibility has been heightened as new remote and autonomous resources come online, which means that essential background software has to meet stringent security requirements in UAV RFPs and SOWs. It is of paramount importance that every information system is operational, secure, and able to guarantee information assurance is defined and valid in order to have the ability to identify, report, and resolve security infringements.

From start to finish in the UAV life cycle, security should be at the forefront with hazards and dangers being immediately flagged throughout all stages of the software development life cycle. Only then will maintenance and support software strategically enable information assurance and cybersecurity.

As UAVs see more operational action than ever before, with wider deployment options and manned/unmanned teaming, designers and users must realize that military UAVs require the same level of innovative logistical and sustainment solutions to maintain operational agility and asset readiness.

Matt Medley is senior product manager at IFS, ensuring that solutions meet the demanding needs of defense service and support organizations, defense manufacturers, and defense operators. He has served as a consultant, program manager, and project manager in aerospace and defense organizations. Matt – a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a certified flight instructor – served for 12 years in the U.S. Air Force, achieving the rank of major and logging 2,500 flight hours in the C-130 aircraft. He holds an MBA from Kennesaw State University and a master’s degree from Webster University and is a certified project-management professional.