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Unmanned futures – operating beyond enemy lines

The international strategic context is shifting once again. While terrorism marked the first decade of the 21st century, resulting in defence developments and procurements focused on asymmetric warfare tactics, the resurgence of great power competition has been defining the last two decades. The terrorism threat is not over, but it is today happening alongside an increase in near-peer and peer-to-peer confrontations. 

For the armed forces, this new shift translates into high-intensity combats characterised by an ever-shortening window of opportunity for decision-making. With adversaries boasting similar levels of technological maturity, threats are becoming faster, stealthier and more varied than ever before. In this context, UAVs are increasingly playing a role in tilting the balance of power. To maintain their tactical edge, countries will need to prove their ability to design, develop and manufacture these systems quickly. 

Thales has leveraged years of experience working closely with customers and leading French technology providers and innovators to develop the Spy’Ranger family of mini and mini tactical UAS. 

Unpacking high intensity conflicts

Gathering intelligence is crucial for gaining and retaining the tactical edge in the battlefield. Yet another key feature of high-intensity combats is the ability to deny an adversary access to critical areas of operation. From destruction of critical infrastructure - bridges, runways, etc. - to obstruction and jamming - drones, electronic warfare, etc. - gathering intelligence is becoming as challenging as it is becoming critical. 

Light tactical UAVs will play a central role in this context. “The key issue in developing such systems, however, will not be the ability to survive in denied areas but the ability to successfully operate in them,” says Pascal Sécretin, Product Line Director Imagers and Sensors at Thales. This implies that the future light tactical UAV (Système de Drone Léger du Future - SDL-F) present certain specific characteristics. 

Sensing trouble 

One of the main requirements from customers in preparing for UAV operations in high intensity conflicts is the ability to integrate multiple payloads,” says Yann Gerard, Director Strategy & Marketing for the Optronics & Missile Electronics Business Line at Thales. 

In the context of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions, the ability to cover a much wider angle with optronics is just one of the key capabilities the SDL-F will have to feature. In order to be able to establish a full threat picture beyond enemy lines, other payloads such as radars or COMINT sensors will have to be integrated. 

UAVs will also be used to strike against adversary targets, keeping crew out of harm’s way. In the short-term, this will certainly result in the integration of a laser designator, to be used in cooperation with a crewed platform - e.g. fighter jet - responsible for carrying out the strike. The integration of weapons on UAVs, while envisaged, is likely to take much more time because “they have to be heteronomous,” Sécretin emphasises. The necessity to maintain the human-in-the-loop when deciding to strike means that communication with the SDL-F must be maintained at all times.

Autonomy beyond enemy lines

The need for sensors is not only derived from the type of missions the SDL-F will carry out, they also play a key role in autonomy. “The SDL-F will have to feature high levels of autonomy to successfully operate beyond enemy lines,” says Gilles Labit, Head of Military UAV Systems Department at Thales. 

Autonomy, in this context, will represent much more than the ability to fly without being remotely piloted. In an environment where both physical and electromagnetic obstacles are deployed to deny access, the ability to navigate, when GPS and all other forms of communication and navigation are jammed, will be critical. This will likely imply the integration of inertial navigation systems into the SDL-F, that is, the ability to calculate precisely the system’s location by triangulating information gathered through various sensors and systems.

Autonomy beyond enemy lines also means range. In order to gather actionable intelligence, these systems must be able to fly further over denied territory. “A lot of research is going into trying to determine the most adequate type of propulsion to increase range and autonomy while also carrying more payload,” Labit adds. Due to stealth requirements for the SDL-F, a hybrid solution is likely to be the most appropriate one. Whether this would include a hybrid between thermal and electric, or between thermal and fuel cell (hydrogen), this type of propulsion would enable the SDL-F to fly stealthily when and where necessary. 

Finally, to successfully carry out fully autonomous missions, the SDL-F must be able to detect when it is being jammed. The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play a significant role in this context, providing these systems the ability to detect inputs that are incoherent with their missions, situation and/or functioning. 

Keeping it simple

Future drones will not be flown by trained pilots,” Labit explains, soldiers at all levels, in highly stressful and complex environments will operate them. “As such, the trend is to make these systems as simple to operate as possible.”

Simplicity begins with the ability to deploy these systems in theatres of operations where access has been denied through destruction of basic infrastructure. Where airport strips, roads and/or terrain do not allow for a long take-off, systems featuring Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) capabilities could be the answer. 

Simplicity also entails the ability to present key information in a clear way. High intensity conflicts will feature highly saturated environments where multiple sensors will gather large amounts of data. AI will play a key role, quickly processing such data in order to reduce clutter and presenting only actionable information through a simple Human Machine Interface (HMI) to facilitate decision-making in high-stress situations. 

Planning ahead

“The new system must be developed on the basis of a strong operational needs analysis,” Sécretin points out. Building on the experience it gained from the development, production and delivery of the French Army’s mini reconnaissance drone (Système de Mini-Drones de Reconnaissance - SMDR), the Spy Ranger, Thales is already ahead of the curve in this process.

Over the past 5 years, Thales has worked closely with the Armed Forces and the French Directorate for Armament (DGA) to deliver the SMDR. Two key elements are at the core of the Spy’Ranger’s success and could form a strong basis for the SDL-F. First, Thales has built a strong national UAV ecosystem, a network of organisations with different experience and expertise, which can be relied upon - and expanded - for the development of the future light tactical UAVs. 

Second, in February 2022 the Spy Ranger officially gained STANAG 4703 certification. This means that the system is safe and reliable, and can now be easily deployed and operated by the armed forces without specific authorization. It also means that Thales and its network have developed strong expertise in complying with stringent requirements and working together with the DGA. “Working closely with the DGA to obtain this certification has enabled the development of trust amongst partners, and will allow Thales to repeat the process much more quickly when the next opportunity comes along,” Labit explains. 

More than a system – an eco-system

Ultimately, it is not easy to master the third dimension UAVs represent in a battlefield,” Gerard concludes, “so our main concern at Thales is understanding how to build on our experience to provide strong support to our customers.” This experience extends well beyond the development of systems such as the Spy Ranger. It comprises the full eco-system Thales helped build in France for the design, development, production and traffic management of UAVs – both in the civil and military world. 

As the battlefield continues to increase in complexity and intensity, Thales will continue to provide solutions and services right at the heart of the combats.


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