Colin Clark, editor of our companion site DOD Buzz, went out to White Sands Missile Range to take a look at the small robots, drones and other bits of technology formerly known as FCS spin-outs and now called some other name that won't last very long before its changed too. Here is his report:
White Sands Missile Range – Early test results for son of FCS — not yet validated by Army testers — look good, with significant reliability and performance improvements to the group of technologies known as increment 1.
That was the word from several Army officials here, including Col. John Wendel, program manager for what the Army insists on calling Brigade Combat Team Modernization. (The Army and Boeing may hate it but son of FCS is the most accurate name for the agglomeration of stuff they now put under the rubric Brigade Combat Team Modernization.) A second Limited User Test is coming up next month and our trip was designed to give readers a glimpse at what is at stake and how things have changed since last year.
Here’s a summary:
A key component of the entire modernization effort, the Ground Mobile Radio (GMR), is performing at far longer ranges (up to 22 miles); with much improved reliability and it is doing so in combat mode. That means it is operating in anti-jamming mode. As Wendel told three visiting reporters, he was cradling GMRs in an air conditioned rental car last year to cool them down so they would work, and they took a very long time to start up — up to 90 minutes. Over the last few weeks, GMRs have been baked and frozen in environmental testing and they have performed reliably. The GMR is the central part of the Network Integration Kit (NIK) installed on three models of MRAPs for the modernization effort. These MRAPs have been left in the baking White Sands sun and have performed reliably. Now the GMR takes about 30 minutes to turn on all the wave forms, though a SINGCARS wave form can be started up in just over one minute, according to Marine Capt. James Thomas, who works on the system for the joint program office.
In terms of range, the improvement is marked. Last year, the GMR SRW wave form struggled to handle 800 meters. Now it’s functioning at up to 12 kilometers. The Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) is now handling more than 30 kilometers. Bottom line, according to Wendel: they are “performing well beyond requirements in terms of range.” One of the most visible and impressive improvements to the network is its ability to send reasonably crisp images at a decent speed that pop on the Army’s FBCB2 screen. Vehicles features were clearly discernible.
The little ground robot, the SUGV, only managed to eke out seven hours mean time between failures last year. Under controlled testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground, two SUGVs have demonstrated more than 42 hours between failures, Wendel said.
The flying beer keg, also known as the Class 1 UAV, is no longer suffering regular hard landings and system aborts, Wendel said: “Last year, every time we flew we would cross our toes and fingers.” On Wednesday night, it flew for a total of eight hours.
The unattended ground sensor is sending data with far greater reliability, thanks to a more rugged antenna, improved battery contacts and a solar shield that helps prevent overheating.
The House Armed Services Committee came down hard on son of FCS, whacking most of the money from the Army budget. Although Rep. Silvestre Reyes, senior member of the HASC, restored $111.6 million of a massive cut of $891 million from the Army’s 2011 budget request for modernization. The Army had requested $1.6 billion for research and development and $682.7 million to buy gear. While we hear that appropriators are unlikely to go as far as their authorizing cousins, there is clearly fairly broad skepticism in the House. Perhaps it is time for congressional staff to grab a fresh look at the brigade technologies, suggested one Capitol Hill watcher. “Members and staffers really need to see these capabilities in person at White Sands to fully appreciate the progress that’s been made since last year,” this source said.
[Full disclosure: Boeing paid for our plane ticket to visit White Sands.]