Removing the pilot from the platform has obvious benefits but can also create new problems. Payload, for instance, is a prominent limiting factor when it comes to endurance and operational range but is offset by the need to install autonomous enabling systems with appropriate levels of redundancy. Furthermore, having a pilot onboard who can make quick and effective decisions in a multitude of unforeseen situations is a powerful control that can only partially be replaced by technology.

While sophisticated on-board systems might react faster, they are by no means cheap and even with advanced technology can still be fallible, even in simple but unfamiliar circumstances. Finally, because the safety of the other airspace users and of the people on the ground must be fully guaranteed, no compromise can be made on safety related functions. In turn, this also means that no instant budgetary savings can be expected as a result.

“Air Traffic Insertion (ATI) is another important aspect to be taken into account. In the ATI area, where the European Defence Agency (EDA) supports the on-going European MALE RPAS development, the system specification – and more specifically its safety levels – must match or even exceed the performances of a manned system,” says Jean-Youri Marty, EDA Deputy Director & Head of Unit Air Domain. These are well identified technical issues addressed by EDA Members States through cooperative projects such as MIDCAS (Detect and Avoid) and ERA (RPAS Automation), but there is still some work to be done to prepare future systems. 

RPAS technologies are evolving rapidly. As the volume of real-time flight information available is skyrocketing, the need to assist the pilot or the operator in his decision-making is also growing

With a growing level of autonomy, especially when leveraged by Artificial Intelligence (AI), RPAS will also challenge the approach to verification in the aviation environment, currently not adapted for the certification of non-deterministic systems. This issue has been identified as one of the key priorities to be addressed through the EDA Industry Exchange Platform on RPAS Air Traffic Insertion which has been established to steer the discussion between EDA, its Member States, European industry and stakeholders for the identification of the new research projects required to ensure the full integration of RPAS in European airspace.

Finally, in a peacetime environment, the challenge is also to integrate such a platform alongside the manned aircraft within a modernised European ATM system which will be a fully interconnected system enabled by a progressive increase of the level of automation support.

That said, the afore-mentioned operational benefits are a reality and make unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) truly valuable assets. As a consequence, the numbers of UAVs in the inventories of Member States’ Armed Forces are expected to grow significantly over the coming years, be it for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions with systems ranging from micro-UAV to large, high-altitude platforms or for deep strike combat missions carried out with low-observable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs).


Issues to be addressed to explore the full potential of UAVs

Nevertheless, many technological, regulatory and training-related challenges are still to be addressed and fixed before a wide range of unmanned aerial systems can realise their full operational potential.

As discussed previously, ensuring a safe air traffic integration of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) into controlled airspace (and also into non-controlled airspace) as well as providing adequate cyber-protection of systems (which are by design highly connected) are among the key challenges to tackle.

Independence from third (non-EU) countries and companies also has to be guaranteed to ensure Europe can achieve the appropriate level of strategic autonomy that is required in this crucially important defence capability domain. This is exactly what EU Member States are doing by developing cooperative projects to come up with cutting-edge European technical solutions.

Providing suitable and comprehensive mission training and opportunities for tactical development and building a shared operational culture can also be challenging as RPAS units are – unlike conventional air force squadrons – often isolated and geographically separated from their coalition partners with little opportunity for crosspollination of ideas or to build professional relationships. Moreover, many training regimes are highly platform specific and may be bound by intellectual property rights (IPR) and contractual restrictions that can restrict interoperability between platform types.


EMALE RPAS Community Working Group

The European Medium Altitude, Long Endurance, (EMALE RPAS) Community Working Group is chaired by EDA and, together with the European Air Group (EAG), supports Member States’ efforts to resolve some of these issues. Since 2016, the Working Group and the EAG have been looking to improve communication and interoperability between their national RPAS communities through regulator meetings looking at doctrine, operational procedures, training, logistics and maintenance domains for synergies and opportunities to pool and share resources. The latest initiative is a low-cost training technology demonstrator project, which will see the deployment of 10 generic, desktop simulators across national RPAS centres of excellence and schools. The system is linked over a private network which will allow basic tactical training and communication between sites so that approaches to training and teaching protocols can be shared, procedures streamlined/standardised and best practices identified by all participants. The demonstrator will run until 2021 but its practical benefits will remain and further develop in the longer term, as building trust and understanding is the ultimate enabler for improved coalition capability. 

The European MALE RPAS is the first unmanned aerial system designed for flight in non-segregated airspace, its characteristics will include mission modularity for operational superiority in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, both wide area and in-theatre

Step by step towards autonomous systems

RPAS technologies are evolving rapidly. As the volume of real-time flight information available is skyrocketing, the need to assist the pilot or the operator in his decisionmaking is also growing. Today’s technologies make this possible: auto-pilot functions, anti-collision systems, real-time flight plan adjustment systems to avoid turbulent areas are already assisting pilots in their job. The next technological step would be the automation of the decision-making itself, leading gradually to autonomous systems.

As technology progresses (especially in terms of computing power and AI), we will see an increase in the automation level for certain functionalities potentially reaching fully autonomous capabilities for specific scenarios. Removing the human from the loop therefore becomes a technological option and might even be considered in cases where communication networks fail or short reaction times (not compatible with satellite communication links) are crucial.

Other scenarios in which RPAS can benefit from autonomous capabilities include emergency situations where multiple failures (loss of communication links, in particular) are involved. In such an emergency situation, the aircraft will still be able to react and behave in a timely and predictable way despite the unpredictable environment, ensuring the safety of other airspace users as well as the people and property on the ground.


Cooperative approach to emerging RPAS-related challenges is crucial

The relevance of UAVs for defence goes beyond large RPAS, like MALE systems, because more and more sophisticated micro and mini UAV systems are being exploited by a large spectrum of users, including some with malicious intent. Those systems are already (and increasingly) a threat to Member States’ Armed Forces. Developing a response to this specific threat is now a must. Tackling this challenge through a cooperative approach is more than ever needed as it would enable Member States to synchronise their national efforts with a view to delivering common solutions which are quick, efficient and interoperable.

Whatever the level of autonomy Member States will decide to choose for their unmanned aerial systems, “a cooperative approach to proactively manage such potential projects in an EU context would certainly make sense, to take full advantage of technological progress while remaining in full control of the evolution in a coherent way across Europe,” Mr Marty concludes.

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