The Mil & Aero Blog
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
  Drone, UAV, UAS ... what do we call that unmanned flyin' thing, anyway?

Posted by John Keller

I'm hearing a lot of different names lately for unmanned aircraft. The mainstream media seems to like the word "drone" to describe the kind of sophisticated pilotless aircraft able to find and attack elusive targets in rugged terrain. Many in the trade press use "unmanned aerial system," or UAS, to describe pilotless aircraft. At Military & Aerospace Electronics, we tend to use "unmanned aerial vehicle," or UAV.

So what's in a name? To the unbiased, perhaps not much, but I've been covering the developing UAV industry for a long time now, and to me, there are some subtle yet substantial differences.

The biggest problem I have is with the use of the word drone to describe today's advanced-technology UAVs. To me, drone describes a remotely operated aircraft, often used for tracking and target practice, and has no role in describing UAV technology that often as not can operate autonomously. We used to call these kinds of flying targets "remotely piloted vehicles," or RPVs -- a term I haven't seen or heard in several years.

Related stories

-- U.S. defense spending for UAV data links and ground-control stations reached billion-dollar mark in 2010

-- Raytheon debuts ground control system for Scavenger UAV, gains ITAR approval

-- Global Hawk UAV makes system flight using MP-RTIP sensor.

I remember visiting China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest, Calif., back in the early '80s, and saw old Air Force North American F-86 Sabre jet fighters flying around the area. I couldn't figure that one out; F-86s gained fame in the Korean War in the early 1950s during dogfights in famed Mig Alley. These aircraft were hopelessly obsolete even 30 years ago when I was visiting China Lake.

The people there told me those F-86s I saw in the sky had no pilots in them, but instead were remotely operated -- much like a radio-controlled model plane. Navy fighter pilots in what were new aircraft like the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter used those remote-control F-86s to practice locking weapons on target during air combat maneuvering exercised. Occasionally, I heard, they used to blow those remote-control F-86s out of the sky, but I never saw them do it.

My point is, the word drone describes something simple and unsophisticated, and has no place describing today's UAVs.

Now for the term UAS. I know the Pentagon loves this term, and its officials are encouraging everyone to use it when describing advanced unmanned aircraft. My reasons for not using it are selfish and simple. The term UAV gets about a million searches on Google every month. UAS gets about half that.

I want Google to sweep as many readers to the Military & Aerospace Electronics Website at as possible, and I'll continue using UAV for as long as it draws the most online search traffic.

I'll keep an eye on it, though. The minute that UAS gets more search traffic than UAV is when you'll see UAS through the online and print pages of Military & Aerospace Electronics. We'll see how well -- and how soon -- the Pentagon's UAS campaign pays off.
Monday, November 28, 2011
  Customizable communication
Posted by Skyler Frink

Everyone customizes their phone one way or another now. Whether it's their background or the applications they use, people are getting to communicate and view data on their own terms. Will soldiers be given this luxury with their communication and data?

While on one hand, allowing customizable communication and data could mean that soldiers are getting different pictures of the battlefield, but is that really a bad thing? If one soldier prefers contour lines rather than colors to indicate elevation, is it a big deal that they aren't seeing the same exact thing?

We have the technology to do this, it's right in the devices we use every day. Is it difficult to program, or is there some sort of standardization issue that prevents customization? I'm curious as to whether soldiers will be given the myriad of options civilians are offered when it comes to communication, and I'm curious as to what the major players in the defense industry think about the potential of personalized communication.

Should our soldiers be able to customize how data is displayed, or should there be one standard that everyone in the military has to conform to? Should customization be allowed at all, be limited to minor aesthetic changes or allow warfighters to change everything about how data is displayed?

I'm excited to see the direction the military goes. I know I'd like to see a fully-customizable Command Web system, allowing users to pick and choose how data is displayed on screen.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
  Federal spending cuts: can't anybody here play this game?

Posted by John Keller

Here it is, the day before Thanksgiving; too bad the U.S. aerospace and defense industry doesn't have too much to be thankful for.

The so-called congressional supercommittee, put in place to identify federal spending cuts over the next 10 years, has declared failure -- even before its deadline.

The supercommittee was tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts over the next decade, and members simply couldn't do it. Reminds me of a quote from Casey Stengel, manager of the hapless 1962 New York Mets, a team that lost 120 out of 162 games that year. "can't anybody here play this game?" Stengel reportedly asked. The committee's failure means the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) budget faces annual automatic cuts of $55 billion.

Related stories

-- More meaningless posturing over "automatic" cuts in the defense budget

-- Pentagon's 2012 budget: procurement and UAVs

-- Smoke, mirrors, and other hocus-pocus take center stage at U.S. deficit-reduction talks.

Think of that kind of defense cut, if Congress allows automatic cuts to proceed. $55 billion is enough to pay for about 40 F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft, 1,200 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, 885 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, or 12 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Remember, that $55 billion cut could happen every year for 10 years in a worse-case scenario.

Now the federal budget faces potentially automatic deep spending cuts starting in federal fiscal year 2013, which begins in 10 months. DOD programs could be among the hardest hit if Congress does not intervene.

Intervention. That was supposed to be the role of the supercommittee, but partisan bickering doomed negotiations probably before they really got started. Makes me wonder of Congress as an institution is even capable of reducing federal spending.

I have my doubts that Congress will stand by to see these potentially devastating DOD spending cuts take hold. There are simply too many special interests at stake for Congress to ignore. Time will tell, and presidential and congressional elections less than a year away undoubtedly will play a central in how things turn out.
Monday, November 21, 2011
  Video Games as Military Education

Posted by Skyler Frink

In my video blog I discussed video games in the military, but I feel that there's much more to say on the subject. As a person who has actually played the game that got it all started, America's Army, I feel like I should weigh in on my experience and the impression it gave me. Now, I played America's Army 2, not 3, so there may be some slight differences between my own experiences and those of the current game.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with America's Army, it is a realistic first-person video game with a goal of educating the public on the U.S. Army.

First of all, the game requires you to go through training before you play at all. The training isn't particularly short either, and it took me about an hour to complete it before I could jump into the multiplayer. The training features running through an obstacle course, getting familiar with all the weapons and doing some shooting on a firing range.

This training is designed to help educate players on the Army's standards, and reduce the dropout rate of people in basic. While I can't say I got any more fit than I was when I started playing, I can say I have an understanding of the obstacle course (or at least what sort of challenges there are in it) now and understand some basics about weapons in the army. It really does go into great detail explaining things and drives home that the Army is full of well-trained individuals.

The additional training you can take to become a sniper or medic go into even more detail. Becoming a medic is particularly difficult, as you need to listen to several lectures, complete with slides, and then complete an in-game test. At the very least I took away the ability to make an effective tourniquet, and more respect for those who choose to become medics.

Once in the game you are given the option of many different maps to play on, each with their own scenario. None of these scenarios require killing anyone else (you can reach the other side of the map "bridge crossing" without firing a shot, for example), though it's generally impossible to win or lose without any casualties.

Interestingly enough, there is also a "training" map where each time is representing different teams in the U.S. Army on a training course that uses actual training gear (it looks more like laser tag than actual combat). Instead of being killed when shot, characters sits down if they are eliminated and wait until one team wins. Again, this highlights the professionalism of the Army and gives a peek into what training is like.

It's the professional atmosphere of the game that really gives it some useful educational value. Between the extremely useful in-game audio commands (yes, it includes Hooah!) and the realistic objectives, the game breeds respect and education. Even the community is friendly and welcoming, unlike many online gaming communities. After experiencing the training the players are united by at least one common experience, and the title itself tends to attract a more respectful crowd.

The game gives an extremely positive view of the Army, and does so without being preachy or boring. As a teenager I wasn't playing it to be educated, I was playing to be entertained, but some education couldn't help but rub off on me.

More companies should make games that educate in a way America's Army does: by allowing players to experience every aspect of what you're trying to teach them. From the classroom to the firing range to the battlefield, America's Army gives an impression of what it's like to be in the Armed Forces. Unlike other games that drop you right into combat, America's Army gives context and is all the better for it.

Now to see if I'm still of any use on the virtual battlefield...

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Saturday, November 19, 2011
  Great Reason To Get To Munich This Spring: Avionics Europe to Explore New Frontier of Air Traffic Management
By Ernesto Burden, Publisher

Catching up on some writing and email on a Boeing MD-80 from Toronto to Chicago, I note a message from Neil Walker, the marketing manager of our Avionics Europe show, and that confluence of circumstances inevitably turns my thoughts to two pleasant topics - avionics and Munich. There's a lot to love about well-functioning, best-of-breed avionics - particularly when you are at 33,000 feet. And there's a lot to love about Munich and Bavaria, from the food (and beer!), to the culture, history, to the amazing architecture. For those in the avionics industry, you've got the perfect reason to get yourself there this spring - our tenth anniversary Avionics Europe 2012 show.

The 2012 conference and exposition, March 21-22, is the second year the show will be in Munich. The first year was an exciting renaissance for the event, with 35 percent growth in attendance and tremendous buzz on the floor, not only about renewed optimism in the aerospace industry, an optimism I've encountered quite often this year despite current economic uncertainties, but also about the splendid new location.

Neil's note underscored the practical effect of this optimism. He'd just penned a press release announcing Thales Avionics has decided to sponsor and exhibit at the 2012 event. They are joining the significant likes of the Association of European Airlines, SESAR and EUROCAE. in other words, the conference is really cooking and is poised to well top the success of 2011.

Beyond the opportunity to get myself back to Munich, and the great sponsors and exhibitors we're expecting, there are plenty of other reasons I'm excited about 2012.

Back in September, Military & Aerospace Electronics editor in chief John Keller and I went to Munich to meet with the conference's advisory committee (check out the committee here) to flesh out the program. John, who along with our Avionics Intelligence executive editor Courtney Howard, is heading up on the conference content this year, and the program developed in Munich promises to take last year's momentum and build mightily on it.

Writing this missive from 33,000 feet up in ever more crowded skies, I can't help but be heartened by the high level brainpower being brought to bear during our 2012 event on a central theme, which John describes as "how commercial airlines can improve revenue with an increasing flow of aircraft traffic, while maintaining safety and on-time departures and arrivals. The event will highlight and explore the technological, policy, and design issues faced by aircraft operators and designers as global aviation moves into the new frontier of air traffic management exemplified by SESAR and NextGen."

Speaking of on-time arrivals, it looks like we have one, so I'd best be packing away the iPad for landing. I look forward to seeing you in Munich. Save some pork knuckle and potato dumplings and a liter of Weizenbock for me. Bis bald!

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of Military & Aerospace Electronics and Avionics Intelligence. He can be reached at and on Twitter @ aero_ernesto.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
  The role of the smartphone on the digital battlefield

Posted by John Keller

The Android smartphone and mobile tablet computer soon will play major roles on the digital battlefield, as government agencies join forces with the aerospace and defense industry to find ways to safeguard these technologies from hackers, eavesdroppers, and attempts steal sensitive information by reverse engineering.

U.S. government agencies -- particularly the National Security Agency (NSA) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) are beginning to embrace commercially developed data-encryption algorithms, as well as software virtualization technologies that enable classified and unclassified information to run together on the same mobile device.

At the same time, industry is developing Wi Fi technologies to enable fighting forces on the front lines to exchange sensitive and classified information securely among handheld devices like tablet computers, smartphones, and wearable computers for situational awareness, targeting information, and intelligence gathering.

Related stories

-- Lockheed Martin provides smartphone tactical network capability to U.S. Marine Corps

-- L-3 IEC releases Android smartphone app that enables military users to share full-motion video

-- Samsung/Google Nexus S smartphone certified by NASA flies aboard final space shuttle.

It's only a matter of time before a soldier on the front lines observes enemy movement, whips out a rugged smartphone from a vest pocket, takes a picture, and sends that information over a secure and mobile wireless local area network to warn colleagues nearby, as well as to send that time-critical information by satellite up the chain of command.

Military forces are eager to dip into the deep well of commercially developed mobile communications technology such as smartphones and tablets. Still, it almost doesn't matter whether the military wants to use this technology or not; the technology is coming, ready or not.

New recruits to the military forces expect to use the same technologies on the battlefield that they used every day in the civilian world, and the military -- even if it wanted to -- would be virtually powerless to stop this technological tidal wave.

Today, the military's major tasks in this regard are to find commercially developed mobile communications technology that offers good-enough capability, good-enough reliability, and good-enough security for use on the front lines.

The key phrase here is good enough. The days of gold-plated military-specific technologies are drawing to a close, and fast. The biggest and most immediate benefit of this, with little doubt, is involving smartphones, tablets, and other commercial mobile technology.
Monday, November 14, 2011
  The best defense is...

Posted by Skyler Frink

The best defense has changed throughout time. While the old phrase "the best defense is a good offense" has been popular, is it always true?

As times change it seems the best defense has changed with it. Trench warfare showed us the best defense is, indeed, a good defense. The cold war turned around and showed us that the best defense was a good offense (that you chose not to use, lest the other side use their own good offense).

Now we are at a time where the best defense is early detection. Everywhere from airports to the front lines are utilizing advanced forms of detection, which is currently as the best way of preventing an attack or halting one that has already begun.

We possess systems that can prevent any manner of attack, from our missile intercept systems, anti-torpedo measures and even a vehicle-arresting barrier, if we know an attack is being carried out we are capable of halting it (or at least severely limiting the damage done).

However, these systems are worthless if they can't detect a threat before it is too late. This is what has caused a paradigm shift, and led to many of the technological advancements of the day. From the full body scanners at airports to the new radar systems used by our military, we have begun pushing for more accurate and earlier detection.

After all, what's the point of a system that can stop a missile mid-flight if you don't even know the threat is there in the first place?
Friday, November 11, 2011
  The politics and interpretation of DOD's Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) guidelines

Posted by John Keller

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is using a long and nebulous set of guidelines that have a lot of people talking within the defense industry. The guidelines are called
Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA)
, and describe in some detail the relative maturity of evolving technologies considered crucial for military systems like ships, airplanes, and tanks to meet their operational requirements.

The interesting thing about TRAs -- and one that generates substantial conversation and controversy in the defense industry -- is how to play them to best advantage in competitions for military procurement programs, and how companies can game the TRAs to ensure their most important technologies have the most beneficial TRA ratings.

The DOD lists nine different levels of TRAs, ranking so-called critical military technologies from least to most mature. Where the gamesmanship comes in is where on the scale to peg a company's most lucrative technology offerings for upcoming military procurements.

Related stories

-- SWIR, infrared HD, and low-light images of France from 17,000 feet

-- Boeing Future Combat System shows maturity in joint experiment

-- GA-ASI will leverage work on new U.S. Navy study contract to develop high-tech, carrier-launched unmanned aerial system.

Company leaders don't want their core technology offerings to be among the least mature, because newer technologies pose great risk; there's no guarantee these technologies will work every time, and might not work and play well with other system components.

On the other hand, companies don't want their most important products to be among the most mature technologies because many of those are nearing obsolescence. No one wants to design in obsolete technology ... well, at least not on purpose.

The trick is to find that sweet spot in the middle that can describe a company's most important and lucrative technologies as not too new, not too old, but just right -- positioned most advantageously for system procurements with various durations.

DOD officials point out that TRA ratings come from independent review teams of subject matter experts, but we'd be silly if we didn't think each company had a substantial say in how their products will be rated.

A TRA, in essence, is a formal, systematic, metrics-based process and accompanying report that assesses the maturity of military technologies -- hardware or software -- which are necessary for military systems to meet their operational requirements. Here are the nine different TRA levels:

TRA 1, the lowest level of technology readiness, essentially is still laboratory technology just being considered for applications. TRA 2 is a technology just being translated into applications. TRA 3 refers to an experimental technology. TRA 4 refers to breadboard technologies. TRA 5 are technologies in advanced development. TRA 6 is prototype technology for specific applications. TRA 7 refers to demonstration and validation technology. TRA 8 refers to proven technologies. TRA 9 refers to technologies with a reasonably long track record in actual applications, and which might be on the downslope toward obsolescence.

DOD officials keep the TRA guidelines vague on purpose, so sometimes it's a guessing game for companies to determine the best TRA ratings. It's a fair bet that TRAs will remain a hot topic at the bar and around the water cooler.
Monday, November 7, 2011
  Knowledge is Power

Posted by Skyler Frink

If there's one thing GI Joe taught me, it's that knowledge is power.

Intelligence has always been a key factor in military engagements. From the lack of communication between Lee and Stuart in the civil war to the blunder by the British during the Battle of New Orleans, those without knowledge of the battlefield and the capabilities of both sides have been at a severe disadvantage.

Fortunately for the military intelligence has evolved, and getting exact information is increasingly possible with satellites, laser systems, advanced radar, unmanned sensors and unmanned vehicles. The problem facing the modern military is how to share this wealth of information.

The answer is the same as it's always been: Radios.

Modern radios, which behave more like smart phones than the radios of old that only relayed verbal communication, can transmit images, video and data. The utility of these improvements are obvious; verbal reports can be inaccurate and can often be misinterpreted. Rather than having to listen to a verbal report, imagine being able to see the battlefield through video feeds, or have a map that is updated in real-time as data flows in from various sensors.

With all of this information we get the ability to give more detailed commands. Rather than verbal orders, a satellite can locate a target and direct whatever forces are necessary to an area. There are no more questions about where other friendlies are located, because each soldier possesses a GPS that is constantly transmitting data to every other device on the field.

New technologies such as these help dispel the uncertainty created by the fog of war, and go a long way in improving safety for the men and women who are engaged in combat. GI Joe would be proud.

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Friday, November 4, 2011
  Is orange juice key to preserving last intact German Do-17 light bomber downed in Battle of Britain?

Posted by John Keller

Thanks to an Alert Reader in North Carolina, I've learned of an historical research project in England that seeks to raise and preserve what is believed to be the last remaining intact German Dornier Do-17, a World War II-era light bomber shot down over the English Channel in summer 1940 during the Battle of Britain.

Interestingly, it may turn out to be orange juice -- or some similar derivate rich in citric acid -- that may be key to preserving the aircraft remains, now submerged under the English Channel, from the ravages of salt-water-induced corrosion.

Experts from Imperial College London and the Royal Air Force Museum are joining hands to rescue the downed Do-17 -- better-known as the "Flying Pencil" -- and display the restored Nazi bomber in a proposed gallery planned to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the Battle of Britain.

The aircraft was found last year in the shallows off the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel between the England and France. Shifting sands uncovered the aircraft, which had been protected for decades by layers of sediment. Its exposure to salt water, however, threatens to destroy the remains. The Battle of Britain, fought in the summer and fall of 1940, refers to attempts by Nazi Germany to establish air superiority over the United Kingdom as a prelude to a German invasion of the British Isles, which never came, thanks to a tenacious defense by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The recently discovered Do-17 had been manned by a crew of four and loaded with 2,000 pounds of bombs on 26 Aug. 1940 when it was shot down by RAF fighters. Its pilot and another crew member survived, and two were killed when the airplane went down.

For now, researchers are testing an environmentally friendly solution based on citric acid -- found in high concentrations in citrus fruit like oranges and lemons -- to remove surface layers of corrosion and sea deposits on the Do-17 remains, but leave remaining paint and markings on the aircraft intact.

If all goes well, researchers plan to raise the aircraft remains from the English Channel next spring, restore the aircraft, and display it in the planned new Battle of Britain Beacon win at the Royal Air Force Museum's London site.

Editor's note: special thanks goes out to Chris Burke, president of BtB Marketing Communications in Raleigh, N.C., a man of catholic interests, keen insights, and broad expertise. Don't laugh; he knows how to cook a turkey in a garbage can.
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