Jan 6, 2011

Three Eyed Eagle

January, 2011: The U.S. Army is taking advantage of the larger carrying capacity of its new MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV to equip it with multiple cameras. Formally known as the Sky Warrior, the MQ-1C can carry the new TRICLOPS (Triple Common Sensor Payload Line-of-sight Operations). This device consists of three separate sensor balls, each with a movable video-cam that can be operated by a separate operator (a soldier below, or in a helicopter or other aircraft, or by the UAV operators). Thus one Gray Eagle can do the work of three smaller UAVs (like the existing Shadow 200). This is not hard to do, as the army often needs lots of UAV vidcam support in a small area where a battle is being fought. TRICLOPS has not been delivered to the troops yet, but another multi-camera UAV system has.

The U.S. Air Force recently sent its own new UAV mounted multi-camera system, Gorgon Stare, to Afghanistan. Gorgon Stare consists of two (quarter ton each) pods carried on one of the wing hard points of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Currently, each Gorgon Stare contains nine cameras (five day and four night/infrared). Aside from enabling several camera operators to work from one UAV, the camera system also has software to enable covering a larger area, by having the cameras cover adjacent areas. The cameras can also look at the same area, from slightly different angles, and produce 3-D images. Two or more cameras can be used over the same area, at different resolution to, for example, search for a specific individual (who is on the Hellfire delivery list), and have another camera focus in on suspect individuals to get a positive identification. The system software also allows for rapidly shifting from one area to another, in response to requests from the ground. Since the RQ-9 operates at higher altitudes (7,000 meters or more), the cameras can zero in on particular patches of ground, over a wide area.
Systems like Gorgon Stare are a way of addressing the UAV shortage. One method is to equip a small aircraft (manned or not) with more powerful cameras, ones designed to monitor several different ground operations at once. Another method is to install more powerful cameras in smaller UAVs. This has been an ongoing effort, with smaller UAVs having gone through several generations of sensor packages in the last six years.

The MQ-1C Gray Eagle weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135.4 kg/300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg/500 pounds of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. SMQ-1C has a wingspan 18 meters/56 feet and is 9 meters/28 feet long. The MQ-1C can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator), or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. Each MQ-1C costs about $10 million. The army uses sergeants and warrant officers as operators. The MQ-1C has automated takeoff and landing software, and is equipped with a full array of electronics (target designators, and digital communications so troops on the ground can see what the UAV sees.)

The growing number of larger UAVs, like the 4.7 ton MQ-9 Reaper, enables larger sensor packages (like Gorgon Stare) to be designed and built. The Reaper is a 11 meter/36 foot long aircraft with a 20 meter/66 foot wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points, and can carry about a ton (2,400 pounds) of weapons or sensors. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, two 227 kg/500 pound smart bombs (laser or GPS guided), or the half ton Gorgon Stare. Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in ground support missions. The original MQ-1 Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters/27 feet long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters/49 feet. It has two hard points, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters/25,000 feet. Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each. The Gray Eagle is replacing smaller (159 kg/350 pound) Shadow 200s. These carry day and night cameras, and laser designators, but usually no weapons. Most of the new army heavy UAVs delivered over the next five years will carry missiles, and by 2015, the army will have over 500 MQ-1Cs.
The only downside of systems like Gorgon Stare and TRICLOPS is that the constant weight, and aerodynamic drag of the pods reduces the air time 10-20 percent. These multi-camera systems also require more electrical power, and the UAV has to be equipped (with a generator) to supply it.

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