BOSTON – The U.S. Air Force is looking for ways to make it easier for troops on the battlefield to access data from the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have become fixtures on the modern battlefield. The solution could come from an Air Force effort to use unmanned airships, also called near-space vehicles, as well as an unrelated project designed to make the various military communication systems more interoperable, according to a service official.


The near-space concept was demonstrated in November under a program known as Project Marti, which was conducted by Boeing Phantom Works of
St. Louis
and funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory.


The name for the concept is a play on the name of Radio Marti, the
government television and radio station based in
that broadcasts Spanish language programming into
on a continuous basis, according to Jim Paunicka, Boeing Phantom Works principal investigator for Project Marti.


As the near-space vehicle hovers over the battlefield, it would act as a central switchboard for the information that moves from the various UAVs in the area to the troops that use their data, according to Patrick Stokes, Boeing Phantom Works manager for network centric operations-related programs. Troops with properly modified radios could receive the data they need from any of the UAVs in the area directly from the near-space vehicle, rather than having to make arrangements and communications links with each of the UAV ground stations, Stokes said.


Stokes and Paunicka declined to disclose the value of Boeing’s Project Marti contract during a Jan. 16 conference call with reporters, and deferred to the Air Force Research Laboratory on the matter. Fran Crumb, a spokesman for the Air Force Research Laboratory, said the lab has spent a total of $1.2 million on Project Marti to date. Program officials were not available at press time to provide Boeing’s portion of that work.


Boeing is hoping to conduct a full-scale demonstration of the Marti concept in early or mid-2008 at a location like
New Mexico
or Fort Leonard Wood in
that would allow for an operationally realistic flight of the unmanned vehicles involved, Stokes said.


The November demonstration involved computer emulations of data from UAVs that was transmitted to a payload aboard a high-altitude balloon operated by Space Data Corp. of


While the Space Data Corp. balloons give Boeing a chance to demonstrate the Marti concept in the near term, the balloons offer some limitations that Boeing would like to move beyond if it develops an operational system, Paunicka said. The Space Data Corp. balloons currently are marketed commercially to relay information from oil facilities. They also have been used as communication relays by Air Force Space Command during military experiments. However, they do have limited payload capacity and cannot carry payloads larger than 5.44 kilograms during flight inside the United States due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, he said.


The balloons also cannot stay over a single point for weeks at a time, requiring the launch of many balloons to ensure persistent coverage of an area. Boeing believes that future options for an operational version of the Marti concept could include near-space vehicles that can linger over areas for weeks or months at a time, like the High Altitude, Long Endurance vehicle that the company is working on, Stokes said.


The Marti concept could be particularly valuable as the Pentagon deploys increasingly large numbers of small UAVs like the Scan Eagle, which is built by Boeing, and the Raven, which is built AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif., Stokes said. While the November demonstration used the near-space vehicle to handle imagery and data, the concept could work with all types of sensors including chemical and biological detectors, he said.


A near-space vehicle acting as an information broker with UAVs in military operations could only communicate with systems within its line of sight. However, the near-space vehicle could have its range extended by an aircraft featuring a system that is being developed by Northrop Grumman under contract to the Air Force called the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), Robert Hillman, an engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said in a written statement Jan. 16.


The BACN system is capable of serving as a relay aboard high-altitude aircraft, according to a Northrop Grumman news release that was issued in October. BACN also can use software to act as a bridge between users whose communications systems may not normally allow them to talk to users with different equipment on the battlefield.


BACN was tested successfully in April during the Air Force’s Joint Expeditionary Flight Experiment 06 aboard NASA’s WB-57 aircraft that served as a surrogate for a Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk UAV, according to the Northrop Grumman news release.