FARNBOROUGH, England -- Drone-maker General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. unveiled an enhanced cockpit station featuring high-definition touch screens, a video game-like controller, and keyboard for chat and other messaging functions.
The San Diego-based maker of the Predator family of military drones demonstrated the new ground control station to attendees and potential customers this week at the Farnborough International Air Show outside London.
The technology, which has been in development for several years, makes it easier for pilots to see more of the battlefield, fly the aircraft and operate weapons systems, according to Christopher Ames, the company's director of international strategic development.
"There's really no ground station in the world like this today," he said in an interview at the show.
Operators sit in front of a bank of six 24-inch monitors arranged in two horizontal rows. The upper monitors provide a 120-degree view of the battlefield using a combination of live video, synthetic images and air traffic information. The wider field of view comes from digital-terrain data fed into the left and right screens complementing the live video in the center screen.
"It's synthetic," Ames explained, motioning to what looked like streaming video on the side screens. "It's being pumped in."
The lower monitors display mission systems, maps including 3-D graphics and a general screen for chat, e-mail and other mission applications. A quick tap of the finger to various boxes on the lower left screen brings up different systems, including the mission check list, command and control pages, and warning system.
"Everything is basically up front," engineer Stephen De La Cruz explained.
The company's unmanned aircraft such as the Predator A and Predator B, known commonly by their Air Force designations, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, had always collected reams of mission-related information, but the ground station didn't present it all to pilots, De La Cruz said.
"We never tapped into that to create a nice display for the operator," he said. The new cockpit, known officially as the Cockpit Block 50 Ground Control Station, does.
What's more, pilots can use the hand-held controller instead of the control stick to avoid hand fatigue on missions that can last eight hours or longer. Thus, the upgraded system is designed to allow a single crew member to both fly the aircraft and operate its weapons and sensor suite. Today, two crew members typically perform those jobs -- using two adjacent ground control stations.
"If you want to save manpower, that's a good thing," Ames said.
The company recently won a four-year contract to supply the Air Force with seven of the ground control stations, as well as to provide manuals and training. It wants to sell the system, which is compatible with all of its unmanned aircraft, in the U.S. and abroad.
The company continues to pursue international sales, Ames said. Last year's nearly $200 million deal to supply the United Arab Emirates the export-ready Predator XP, which recently conducted its first flight, "opens markets in the Middle East," he said. Over the last year, it also sold France two Predator Bs, he said.
Meanwhile, the company is also developing enhancements for the Predator B.
The first is an option to add two fuel pods to extend the operational range of the aircraft from 27 hours to 34 hours, Ames said. The second, expected in 2016, is an option to replace the wings to increase the wingspan from 66 feet to almost 90 feet, thus extending the operational range from 27 hours to 42 hours, he said.