From first glance, Phantom Works’ role as a leading innovator of groundbreaking unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) is plain to see. “The presence we have in the unmanned systems market is the most important innovation Boeing is showing at Farnborough,” says company president Darryl Davis.
Boeing’s UAV pavilion at this year’s Farnborough Air Show in the UK is hard to miss – packed with all types of aircraft, from the tiny Scan Eagle to the Phantom Ray, a tactical combat UAV, the A160 Hummingbird and the AH-6 Little Bird through to the Phantom Eye and the truly massive Solar Eagle.
“But these are only subscale models as Solar Eagle will have a more than 400ft wingspan and Phantom Eye which we unveiled last week is 150ft,” Davis explains. “The larger one, Solar Eagle, is a solar-electric powered airplane, and Eye is liquid-hydrogen powered – two very green, environmentally-friendly airplanes.”
Not just green, these latest UAVs will also stay aloft for much longer than their predecessors. Developed in collaboration with DARPA, Solar Eagle will build to a flight time of up to 90 days, and could even stay up for years at a time in the future. The Phantom Eye prototype has a target mission time of ten days.
“Persistence has been a constant drum-beat from the customer base,” says Davis. “They say ‘I want to be there longer, I don’t want to be launching UAVs to replace UAVs, just build one that will go up there for five years and stay in place.’ With our emerging technology, our analysis would indicate that to maintain 24/7, 365 coverage, you can do it with just three UAVs. Every few days you launch one to relieve another one.”
One of the projects Phantom Works is focused on is interoperability between manned and unmanned aircraft, extending the autonomy of the system.
According to Davis, Boeing’s UAVs are entirely autonomous. “We preprogramme the airplane and can override it and give it different commands, driven by mission intent or commander intent. You tell it what to do, but the machine works out the best way to do it.
“The Scan Eagle compressed carriage can fold its wings and tail and be carried by another airplane and then air launched, submarine launched or ship launched and recovered just like the Scan Eagle with the skyhook recovery system. After the manned mission returns to base, it stays in flight as a leave-behind ISR asset, gathering data for 24 hours.”
A lot of the work in establishing how the manned and unmanned systems can work together has been done through simulation, but some live exercises have been carried out.
“We did an experiment in Australia where we took an airborne early-warning plane and controlled three Scan Eagles from it while it was flying around doing its missions. This shows that manned and unmanned vehicles can collaborate, extending the effectiveness of your original platform by having unmanned vehicles out there.”
Sifting a sea of data
UAV operators are already overloaded with the massive quantity of data that comes in from existing systems – as increasing numbers of UAVs take to the skies, finding meaning in this vast sea of data becomes the greatest challenge.
“In our advanced networks and space business we’re looking at the networks over which the data comes in and how we can rapidly catalogue and store it in a way in which it can be easily retrieved by an operator with a particular query,” says Davis.
Phantom Works is looking into change detection methods to alert operators only when something is of interest. That presents two problems: pixel by pixel matching of the images to accurately identify the change and insuring against false alarms.
“Software tools are maturing to the point where we hope to see some payoff in the not-too-distant future. Then you will be able to sift terabytes of data and detect changes in texture. You need to correctly identify if someone’s come through during the night and buried an IED in the road, for example. At the moment it’s very human intensive,” he adds.
Innovation through prototyping
Given the massive turnover of innovations Phantom Works presents to the world, where do its engineers get their ideas?
“We try to understand our customers’ problems and challenges rather than offer them a widget”, says Davis. “One of the main ways we do business is to build a virtual environment of what the customer is doing, whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on the water or in space. Once we understand their problems we create a series of virtual experiments that allow them to experiment with new capabilities.”
Ideas that work in a virtual environment will move rapidly into prototyping, one of the most effective tools in Phantom Works’ armoury, as evidenced by the Phantom Eye and Solar Eagle. In this era of cost cutting, prototyping also allows Phantom Works to look at advanced manufacturing processes that could be used when the product goes into production.
The future in space
For the next generation of ground-breaking innovations, Phantom Works has its eyes set firmly on space. “If you think about it, all satellites are unmanned, autonomous systems,” says Davis.
“Based on a programme we did a few years ago called Orbital Express, there seems to be an interest in using an unmanned system to service satellites – to refuel, carry out repairs, swap out sensors, instead of launching a new one as a replacement.
“This assumes the technology’s there to do that, so then you think ‘how do I build a modular serviceable satellite to take advantage of that? Does that create a different paradigm for changing the constellation in space?’ And that’s something else Phantom Works could get involved with.” Phantom Works’ space ambitions may be years in the future, but it will address the solutions the same way it has with all its previous technologies.
“Understanding technology, producing new capabilities, solving customer problems, and often in a different way than we’ve traditionally solved them – that is really what Phantom Works is all about,” says Davis.