Picture a battle theater of the future. As tensions escalate, the United States is trying to avoid a conflict with a rogue nation that is harboring and promoting terrorism. One by one, the options dwindle.
Now, it's war.
Small, high-altitude Unmanned Air Vehicles and autonomous satellites orbiting the Earth have already been used to scope out the enemy terrain. Unmanned underwater vehicles are placed on alert in the Mediterranean.
In pitch darkness, a U.S. Army Special Operations Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft, flying just a few feet from the ground and controlled by an advanced Comanche helicopter, follows the contours of the Earth to more closely identify targets for attack.
A multi-ship formation of Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, monitored four-at-a-time by a single operator on the ground, penetrate just under the speed of sound, deep into enemy territory. Each of them, programmed for separate targets, begin what once were the most dangerous operations for combat pilots in the cockpit—taking out threat integrated air defense systems.
The UCAVs perform flawlessly, surgically removing their targets with GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and precision-guided Small Diameter Bombs. With the enemy effectively confused, and with air defenses degraded, manned fighter-bombers follow up by attacking prime military targets under the protective covering of other UCAVs jamming enemy electronic signals.
Later, when U.S. troops hit the ground to engage enemy forces, they deploy their own tiny portable UAVs to spot enemy locations. They receive air support from another uninhabited air vehicle: the Canard Rotor/Wing, a revolutionary aircraft that can fly like both a fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter. And the troops depend on unmanned combat ground vehicles for support.
The allied force is victorious and suffers few casualties.
A year ago, that scenario might have appeared to be more like science fiction. But the war in Iraq has clearly demonstrated how coordinated precision strikes can make a decisive difference to the duration and outcome of a conflict. Future conflicts could be resolved much more efficiently, decisively, and survivably by using more sophisticated network-centric technologies and unmanned systems capabilities.
As Boeing's Chief Technology Officer Dave Swain has always said, "If we can dream it, we can build it."
Furthermore, September 11 has changed the way the United States and its allies meet and deal with threats once considered unrealistic or unlikely. Unmanned aerial systems—used in Afghanistan in the war on terrorism and again in Iraq—are already altering the way battles are fought and promise to become a significant element of future force structures.
President George W. Bush has said, "We're entering an era in which unmanned vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance—in space, on land, in the air and at sea."
Prominent among those listening very carefully to the President was Mike Heinz, vice president and general manager of Unmanned Systems, who hopes that the thread that ties these systems together—besides a highly sophisticated integrated process—is the Boeing brand.
One can hear the enthusiasm rising in Heinz's voice as he discusses the possibilities for what could be a $6 billion market by 2010. Some experts predict that a significant number of combat aircraft will be unmanned by 2025.
Boeing has what it takes
Boeing has the edge in this growing competition, Heinz said, because of its experience with integrated systems, its reservoir of engineering and technological talent and its ability to produce complex systems affordably.
"We are not going to be a niche player," he cautioned. "Boeing intends to be the preferred provider of unmanned systems solutions across a broad spectrum of market segment and customer needs.
"Our emphasis is the system, not just an air vehicle," Heinz said. "It's an air vehicle with a mission control system, logistics support and training, and connectivity to the evolving network-centric command-and-control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance environment. A number of companies know how to build air vehicles. A smaller number know how to integrate a weapon or sensor payload onto a vehicle. But Boeing knows the entire system better than anybody else. Most importantly, we are the leader in terms of integrating such components into a seamless, effective system. And that is what is required to succeed in the unmanned-vehicle business. Our military customers are looking for a family of interoperable vehicles, and we plan to provide them with that."
Boeing, he said, is well equipped to capture a significant share of the market in:
• Fast, lethal, highly sophisticated integrated systems built specifically for combat, such as the X-45C Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle in development for the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy and the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft for the U.S. Army—all of which are being developed by Phantom Works and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
• Long-endurance, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, with greater persistence, payload and survivability than the current systems, such as the high-altitude Northrop Grumman Global Hawk and the medium-altitude General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator.
• Tactical UAVs, small propeller-driven autonomous aircraft, currently produced by up to 50 companies, most of them small firms. Boeing intends to enter this market through partnerships with these smaller companies. One example is the ScanEagle, tailored for U.S. customer needs by Boeing through a partnership agreement with the Insitu Group, a small entrepreneurial company based in Washington state.
Wanted: engineers for exciting new environment
These markets, Heinz said, present many exciting opportunities for Boeing and for its engineers and technologists across the enterprise.
"We've opened up a whole new world of intelligent decision-aiding or, something employees are going to hear a lot more about, Coordinated Adaptive Autonomous Controls," Heinz said. "This is an area that is so fertile for invention and for innovative thinking that it presents both an opportunity and a challenge. There will be greater emphasis on leading-edge technologies. We are going to need talented air vehicle engineers because there will be challenging work associated with signature integration and safe, reliable, and affordable air platforms. But we are going to need a higher percentage of engineers who are schooled in information management, cognizant decision-making, logic and software development associated with such an information-rich environment. In general, the Boeing employee will be able to work in a new, exciting environment. This is state-of-the-art stuff, and we're always pushing the boundaries. But it's also a growth area. So employees should see opportunities for career development in a growth business sector."
Boeing UCAV flight test engineers Ann Musial and John Lauba, who helped prepare the X-45A for its first flight at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California on May 22, 2002, are excited about the future.
"It's an incredible honor to be part of a team working on such a breakthrough program," Musial said. "This clearly represents a new horizon for Boeing. That first flight was the start of a new, exciting journey for all of us."
Lauba, who is an engineer on the launch crew, added, "Watching that first flight was an incredible experience. I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing this awesome achievement. It was just a perfect day; even the weather cooperated. I had to keep reminding myself that the airplane was flying by itself, autonomously. The flight was a testament to the talent and teamwork of the people working on the UCAV. We consider ourselves pioneers in this field. It's great to be part of a team that is helping to build a strong future for Boeing."
Nevertheless, Heinz said the engineering team faces some "huge challenges," mainly associated with providing the necessary autonomous controls and with ensuring that there is a dependable communications link with the vehicle operator, even if he or she is halfway around the world.
Heinz is confident that with the talent available at Boeing, there is no challenge that cannot be overcome.
The Unmanned Systems organization, he said, allows Boeing to further exercise a principle that recently has yielded great results for the enterprise: using the very best talent available at Boeing and working together on a "design-anywhere, build-anywhere" basis. The real strength of the organization, Heinz said, will be "its ability to reach across the company to tap expertise, no matter where it resides.
"This organization is a model for working across the company," said Heinz, who reports to both Bob Krieger, president of Phantom Works, and Jim Albaugh, president and CEO of Integrated Defense Systems. He will be employing the process, pioneered by Phantom Works, which works virtually across the organization, drawing on the best available talent to come up with solutions to the toughest of problems. "I will spend a significant amount of time working with people across the enterprise who have expertise in system-of-systems," Heinz said. "The breadth of Boeing is what will make Unmanned Systems the provider of choice."
Even more opportunities will come via global alliances, partnerships, and acquisitions, he said. "We can also gain significant advantage by supplementing and complementing our own research with partnerships that are of three varieties: industry, academia, and government," Heinz said. Boeing will be particularly interested in nontraditional, entrepreneurial companies that typically do not do business with the government. "After all, we're an embryonic organization, too," he said.
The bright future
The advantages of unmanned systems are many and varied. One of their most dramatic impacts is on the customer's bottom line. Production and operation costs for unmanned aircraft are lower than traditional manned air vehicles. And unmanned vehicles can perform long, tedious, and dangerous tasks, such as suppressing enemy air defenses and enforcing "no-fly" zones.
"I've never seen a UCAV that gets scared or bored," said George Muellner, senior vice president of U.S. Air Force Systems at IDS. Or one that is more expensive than a traditional airplane.
"The UCAV program promises to achieve a one-third acquisition cost of a Joint Strike Fighter, and it will have 75 percent lower operating and support cost than current systems," Muellner said.
Looking ahead, unmanned systems technology will move from the air to the ground and into outer space. Phantom Works' Integrated Defense Advanced Systems has been working on the development of Future Combat Systems, a network-centric set of satellites and manned and unmanned air and ground systems that will provide an advanced force structure for a variety of combat missions. It's currently planned for deployment with the U.S. Army in about 2012.
"A key part of our architecture," Krieger said, "will be unattended ground sensors and some robotic applications, moving away from having humans at these systems."
Eventually, Krieger said, high-altitude UAVs could be flown over cities to provide cellular phone service via Low Earth Orbit satellites, eliminating the need for ground infrastructure. And with U.S. homeland security a No. 1 concern, Heinz thinks this technology might fill a role with border patrols and even government agencies outside the Department of Defense.
Albaugh said the shift from manned to unmanned aircraft will take place as part of a larger military transformation enabled by a network-centric system.
"In the past," he said, "we added tremendous functionality and intelligence into each generation of platforms—vehicles for air, land and sea. In the future, data processing and data management will be done offboard the platforms. This approach will be enabled by a network that will allow us to share data, knowledge and capabilities among many dissimilar vehicles, both manned and unmanned. This systems approach will significantly improve overall operational effectiveness."
Said Heinz: "There is no limit to where unmanned systems can take us. This is a good time to be a part of Boeing."
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