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Mini-UAVs: making that tactical connection

Thales has developed a secure miniaturised tactical datalink specifically adapted to unmanned air vehicles.

Unmanned air vehicles play an increasingly important role in surveillance and reconnaissance. Armed forces, law enforcement, customs authorities, security services and other government users need fast, secure access to the valuable data collected by these drones. Thales has developed a secure miniaturised tactical datalink that fits the bill perfectly.

The best of both worlds

UAVs enable users to leverage the specific benefits of aerial intelligence while avoiding the constraints associated with manned aircraft (threats to crew survival, the physical limits of the body during flight, etc.). For around twenty years, these remotely-operated aircraft – which range in weight from a few dozen grams to almost 10 tonnes – have been deployed increasingly successfully in a wide range of operational environments. Land forces, for example, can send up drones to reconnoitre enemy positions without moving any troops forward. UAVs can additionally be used to support precision targeting of artillery fire by supplying point-of-impact data. They also provide police and gendarmerie forces with a vital tool for high-precision monitoring of a range of situations, including demonstrations and special anti-terrorist operations.

To enable them to perform these kinds of missions, “tactical” mini-UAVs – weighing between 10 and 50 kg, and with a range of between 30 and 80 km (about 20-50 miles) – are equipped with various types of optronic sensors that allow photos and video to be collected and interpreted in real time during missions. Users also require access to tactical data concerning the drone itself (for example trajectory, alarms, etc.) to maximise situational awareness.

In addition to taking account of the obvious security requirements, the onboard datalink system has to meet the specific requirements associated with drones, such as small size and limited autonomy. It therefore has to be very compact and lightweight, and energy consumption must be minimised.

A cutting-edge solution

Thales is gearing up to meet all these challenges as part of the SMDR (mini-UAV reconnaissance systems) contract awarded to it by the French defence procurement agency (DGA) in late 2016. From 2018, Thales will supply the French armed forces with up to 70 mini-UAV reconnaissance systems, each comprising three Spy’Ranger mini-UAVs, a ground segment and the associated technical support. Thanks to the µTMA secure miniaturised datalink solution currently being developed, the mini-UAVs will enjoy a key tactical advantage, with high-speed data transmission (at 5 Mbps, giving HDTV-quality images) as well as day/night* observation capabilities at ranges of up to 30 km.

In addition to its remarkable performance – which will provide genuine capability gains – the system is simple to install on the ground (consisting of a launch rail and command module which take less than 30 minutes to set up) and easy to use (the ground station is equipped with omnidirectional antennas, thanks to which it no longer needs to be pointed directly at the mini-UAV).

Above all, however, it is the many differentiating technical features that make the system stand out as one of the most cutting-edge solutions available on the market. The most important of these special “made in Thales” elements are as follows:

  • The hardened datalink (the key differentiator) which offers communications/video encryption capability to prevent interception and eavesdropping;
  • The introduction of multi-trajectory resistance into the waveform (to counter reflection by natural obstacles or buildings), and the use of SIMO/MIMO (Single Input Multiple Output/Multiple Input Multiple Output) techniques to make the datalink even more robust in low-altitude flight and/or in urban environments;
  • The use of an adaptive waveform, which automatically reduces the transmission rate to maintain the datalink in the event of obstacles or at ranges above 30 km;
  • The possibility of superimposing NATO-standard (STANAG) tactical information onto ground-station views of real-time or recorded video images from the UAV for more effective mission control;
  • Finally, cybersecurity mechanisms that offer a high degree of protection against attempts to hack the datalink.

This powerful amalgam of datalink technologies, which combines maximum security, robustness and adaptability, can be proposed to export customers for the Spy'Ranger system, major Western countries, and suppliers of other mini-UAV systems interested in its high added value.

New uses

Thales is already seeking to diversify by identifying new uses for the solution, which should bring even more sales opportunities.

For example, one of the three UAVs in the SDMR system could be used as a communications relay to bypass an obstacle. The solution could also be used by naval rotary-wing UAVs in anti-piracy and anti-drug-trafficking operations, with a “ground” station on board a fast-attack craft or seagoing vessel.

It could also be proposed for manned aerial platforms (helicopters or fighter aircraft) which need to transmit video during ground forces support missions, particularly where friendly and hostile forces are intermingled on the battlefield. This would give tactical coordinators (known as TACtical Parties (TAC-P) or Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC)) and pilots a clear shared tactical picture. In addition, Special Forces helicopters conducting operations over the sea could share key data to help ensure mission success.

Another potential new use is with a small forward-looking sensor mounted on a tactical missile, allowing video to be transmitted to the firing station so that the missile can be guided to the target (for example an enemy tank).
This new innovative solution from Thales is suited to a wide range of operational environments, and paves the way for a slew of new uses for UAVs.

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*Thanks to an infrared channel which is used for night-time observation as well as day/night thermal imaging (based on detection of heat signals from the human body, hot engines, recently fired weapons, etc.).