Unpiloted aircraft are proliferating in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the demand for smaller and more capable systems continues to grow, analysts say that in order to make these aircraft more effective in the urban environment, a fistful of technology improvements are needed.
In the open battlefield environment of past conflicts, small numbers of UAVs were typically used for reconnaissance missions. Today; such aircraft also enable fire support, force protection and signals collection.
Now that the fight has moved into city streets, unmanned systems have encountered some challenges. Buildings can block the line-of-sight of an aircraft and interfere with its communications and flight operations. These so-called "urban canyons" in turn extend the time it can take for troops to identify and engage a target.
We need to close that identification-engagement gap," says Russell Glenn, senior defense analyst with RAND Corp.
The enemy has learned how to exploit that weakness by simply ducking into buildings and challenging rules of engagement, says Glenn. Once a target enters a building, commanders are left with difficult decisions. Do they send a team in to hunt them down or do they hit the building with force? In such scenarios, rules of engagement can interfere with military action and possibly allow the enemy to get away.
"That was and remains a particular problem for coalition forces in Iraq," he says.
In addition, the transmission of video and imagery on limited bandwidth is causing difficulties.
"It is getting crowded up there," says Larry Dickerson, senior analyst for Forecast International.
Information from UAVs often traverses a number of channels before reaching a decision maker. Dickerson says he heard of one report in which intelligence from an Army UAV had to be transmitted through an offshore Navy command center in order to reach the intended recipient on land.
"Ideally, what you would have is every system being able to communicate with every data transmission system, such that UAV 'A' would be able to provide information directly, rather than having to go through nodes," says Glenn.
The Pentagon last January initiated a program to bring real-time surveillance information directly to forces in urban combat zones. Last fall, Northrop Grumman Corp. demonstrated an autonomous system developed under this program that is capable of controlling low-flying UAVs using portable devices.
"The single most important thing the war fighter is not able to do today is get real time surveillance information on the ground, He wants to know what is happening on the other side of the street, that side of the building," says H.R. Keshavan, program manager of the...