Advances in Multi-UAV Operations

Manned-Unmanned Teaming, Swarming and Synchronized Flying

As technology matures and operational concepts evolve, MUM-T missions, synchronized flights, and the corresponding required advances in UAV flight control systems will undoubtedly become cornerstones of modern military strategies. (Image: UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía)

In the ever-evolving landscape of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the use of multi-UAV operations stands at the forefront of technological innovation. The contemporary operational environments underscore the critical importance of harnessing not only the capabilities of individual UAVs and coordinated operations but also their collaborative flights with manned aircraft as loyal wingmen in complex and heavily contested areas.

The evolution of military aviation takes a revolutionary turn with the concept of Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) concept, also known as loyal wingmen, is poised to redefine the capabilities and presents immense potential for air forces worldwide. The development of a CCA mission involving an ‘attritable’ UAV fleet requires meticulous planning, cost considerations, and the establishment of organizational structures. These kinds of operations are designed to be more cost-effective than traditional manned aircraft due to their reduced reliance on aircrews, which, above all, is key to avoiding the loss of lives in high-risk missions. However, it is mainly due to the new design and manufacturing paradigms employed.

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) concept. (Image: UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía)

Attritable UAVs are designed to be reusable but, if necessary, affordable enough to be sacrificed during combat missions, with some CCAs even designated as completely expendable. These autonomous wingmen, designed to complement and accompany manned aircraft, introduce a new doctrine in aerial missions, ranging from target strikes to intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare operations. This new innovative approach is presented to enhance aviation capabilities and achieve mission success while reducing human risk and operational costs.

This state-of-the-art operational framework makes it evident that the fusion and synchronized dance of manned-unmanned teaming, multi-UAV, temporal trajectory control, GNSS-denied operation and advanced AI flight systems concepts are reshaping the narrative of aviation. The challenges and opportunities inherent in these advances propel us toward a future where unmanned and manned assets operate seamlessly, fostering a new era of efficiency, safety, and mission success in the skies.

The Future of Military Aviation with Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T)

Two UAVs executing the same flight plan and being commanded from the same ground control station software. (Image: UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía)

The evolution of military aviation is undergoing a paradigm shift with the integration of unmanned aircraft into combat scenarios. MUM-T represents a transformative approach to enhance flight operation capabilities and achieve mission success. The autonomous CCAs, or Loyal Wingmen, are designed to accompany and complement next-generation fighter aircraft, fulfilling a spectrum of missions, including target strikes, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare operations.

The future of MUM-T visualizes a diverse array of UAVs of varying sizes and capabilities, responding to specific mission requirements. From agile small UAVs to larger and weighted platforms, the flexibility of the CCAs concept allows for tailored solutions in modern military strategies.

However, this new operational scenario brings with it new important challenges to ensure flight safety, such as the human-machine interaction and the need for advanced flight control systems that are capable of managing an autonomous operation, including multiple unmanned aircraft with a manned aircraft in close formation.

In addition to technological advances, air forces must lay the groundwork for the organizational structure to operate and maintain these advanced aircraft in a safe and coordinated ecosystem. The formation of specialized units and comprehensive training programs for airmen are critical aspects of this transformative process. These programs equip airmen with the necessary skills to seamlessly integrate manned and unmanned assets, fostering operational synergy on the battlefield.

UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía’s mission control software, Visionair, showing a multi-UAV flight following a leader and the remaining UAVs in open formation. (Image: UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía)

As air forces embark on this transformative journey, they face the critical challenge of refining human interaction with UAVs. Envisioned as a fleet of UAVs directed by an air battle manager operating from a nearby platform, the focus is on optimizing self-awareness, control mechanisms and communication protocols between manned and unmanned assets. The effective coordination between human operators and autonomous capabilities will be vital to ensure successful missions.

For this reason, exploring different operational configurations is essential for the success of these missions, both using a single operator setup featuring reduced staff and hardware simplicity but intensified operator workload and multiple operator configurations distributing tasks among interconnected ground control stations, necessitating clear communication protocols.

Therefore, the development of advanced UAV mission control software and Ground Control Stations (GCS) has become a critical element. GCS software will need to be robust but also flexible to be able to display all the required information precisely, effectively and efficiently, allowing self-awareness and deep situational understanding. In this sense, the visual and rapid presentation of critical information such as positioning, flight altitude, airspeed, and surrounding traffic to increase the pilot’s situational awareness or the Estimated Time to Arrival (ETA) to a specific “waypoint” (WP) of the different aircraft becomes crucial.

Synchronized UAVs breaking formation autonomously after reaching the same waypoint at the same time. (Image: UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía)

When operating multiple unmanned aircraft in formation and performing synchronized maneuvers, time becomes a critical variable. The coordination of arrival times at different points on the flight route enhances the efficiency of UAV operations, mitigating the risk of collisions. Most guidance and control systems in the last decade have incorporated the capability to create complex flight plans and manage operations, wherein unmanned aircraft follow predefined routes defined by multiple waypoints. However, the integration of temporal constraints — hence also known as 4D trajectories — now becomes indispensable, especially in operations involving multiple UAVs.

A notable facet of unmanned aviation involves the synchronized operation of Unmanned Aerial Target Drones (UAT) in mission-critical scenarios. Consider a mission example where two UATs emulate a penetration attack over a coastline. At a designated moment, both aircraft execute a coordinated evasive maneuver in response to an interception action initiated by the defending party. The success of such missions hinge on understanding how the UAV guidance, navigation and control systems, also known as autopilots, command and manage synchronized operations without the need for manual intervention.

Enhancements in Flight Control Systems

Achieving seamless control and coordination between manned fighter aircraft and unmanned wingmen, as envisioned in the collaborative combat aircraft concept, requires the deployment of advanced flight control systems. The ability to account for diverse and dynamic flight characteristics of both manned and unmanned assets demands intricate algorithms, sensor data, and real-time decision-making capabilities. With a high level of autonomy and adaptability, these sophisticated flight control systems become critical for future Collaborative Combat Aircraft fleets, ensuring smooth interactions between human operators and their UAV wingmen, even in the most challenging environments. In this scenario, UAV Navigation has taken important steps to improve the concept of flight control system and take it to another level.

The latest improvements included in the UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía’s VECTOR-600 autopilot system empower UAVs to cooperate during autonomous missions by seamlessly sharing state information. This level of cooperation facilitates swarm operations, coordinated flights, and open formation UAV flights, significantly enhancing the situational awareness of operators.

The advanced capabilities allow operators to visualize the status of every aircraft during multi-UAV operations, providing a comprehensive overview of the mission. This includes real-time surrounding traffic display capabilities and automatic collision avoidance with autonomous replanning algorithms. These features create a cooperative framework that not only eases the performance of advanced autonomous UAV missions, but also ensures the safe incorporation of unmanned aircraft into manned airspace.

Operators using UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía’s technology have already taken steps in realizing the vision of collaborative manned aircraft with remotely controlled unmanned systems. Leveraging their expertise in advanced flight control systems, they have already successfully executed multiple operations where a UAV target drone was controlled by a dedicated crew aboard a manned aircraft. By combining sophisticated algorithms and state-of-the-art sensors, the flight control system demonstrated the flexibility required to accommodate complex configurations while ensuring efficient and secure communication between the manned platforms and their UAV counterparts. This achievement showcases the immense potential of collaborative aviation, setting a precedent for the future integration of unmanned aircraft into modern air forces.

As we have seen in this article, the future of aviation is undeniably being shaped by the integration of unmanned aircraft into manned operations. The exploration of creating a collaborative aircraft framework, where UAV wingmen are remotely controlled from nearby manned platforms but also have the capability to execute complete autonomous missions, represents a groundbreaking leap in defense.

As technology matures and operational concepts evolve, MUM-T missions, synchronized flights, and the corresponding required advances in UAV flight control systems will undoubtedly become cornerstones of modern military strategies.

This article was written by Miguel Ángel de Frutos Carro, CTO, UAV Navigation-Grupo Oesía (Madrid, Spain). For more information, visit here .