RPAS: Pursuing unmanned success

AvatarBy Chris Thatcher | June 24, 2020

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 17 seconds.

The two leading candidates to provide the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) with a new remotely piloted aerial system (RPAS) are offering American and Israeli aircraft, but the federal government will be leveraging the project to grow Canadian capabilities and capacity in the unmanned aerial system (UAS) sector.

Team Artemis’ proposed IAI Heron TP, a mature platform “with tens of thousands of flight hours” over the past decade. Team Artemis Photo


“The scope and scale of this procurement gives us a unique opportunity to strategically position Canada’s UAS sector for future success,” John MacInnis, director of the project at Innovation, Science and Economic Development, told a webinar hosted by Unmanned Systems Canada on June 22.

Canada’s modest UAS sector amounts to about five to eight per cent of the global market, generating between $400 million and $700 million in revenue in 2018, he noted. But it is projected to grow substantially as opportunities open up in adjacent sectors, including law enforcement and public safety. At present there are over 100 companies employing between 2,000 and 2,500 people in skilled jobs, but 90 per cent are small firms of under 250 employees.

“We see this procurement as an opportunity to build upon and develop new and lasting local supply chain relationships in the sector,” said MacInnis.

Previously known as the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) project, RPAS has been a work in progress since 2005. That’s when the RCAF formally stood up a project office in the Directorate of Air Requirements and assigned the task of assessing unmanned capability to a lieutenant-colonel and CC-130 Hercules pilot, who mused that he was probably being a heretic for developing the requirements for an aircraft without a pilot in the cockpit.

Over the ensuing years, the Air Force has gathered the lessons of allies and acquired some of its own – from 2008 to 2011, the RCAF leased an Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron, the CU-170, to support operations in Afghanistan, flying around 550 hours every month – to craft a statement of requirements.

Given the range of missions the government wants answered by a single aircraft, and the complexity of operating in the Arctic, the slow pace of the procurement might have spared the Air Force a poor investment. Successive RCAF commanders have noted that any platform acquired in the years after the project office was initially established would now be obsolete due to the rapid pace of UAS technology changes.

As a former project director observed in 2013: “Canada is trying to do a lot of things with this UAV … Where the United States would have a couple of different families of UAVs, we’re probably going to have one or two. So, we’re looking for a general-purpose system that can accomplish everything in one project.”

The RPAS project will acquire a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision strike system with ground control stations, munitions, long-term sustainment and infrastructure to deliver up to three concurrent lines of operation at home or abroad, explained Mike Barret, project manager for the Department of National Defence.

Team SkyGuardian’s MQ-9B SkyGuardian, a variant of the MQ-9 Reaper. Team SkyGuardian Image

The high-level mandatory requirements so far include the ability to operate in all weather, day or night; identify, track and prosecute targets over land or sea; reach the edge of Canada’s domestic area of operations from a main base or established forward operating locations; and have the endurance to monitor or prosecute targets of interest such as a ship at that extreme edge for a minimum of six hours before handing off to a manned or unmanned aircraft.

The platform, which is expected to serve for 25 years, must also have the ability to operate in low to medium threat environments and in appropriate class civil airspace under adverse weather conditions; integrate new payloads as technology evolves; accept and share data with and from Canadian platforms such as the CP-140 Aurora, CF-188 Hornet or Halifax-class frigate and its CH-148 Cyclone helicopter and with allies; and conduct air strikes with precision-guided munitions.

Since 2012, the government has conducted multiple information gathering exercises with industry and in May 2019 issued a formal invitation to qualify as a supplier. That process confirmed two teams able to offer a NATO Class III RPAS capable of beyond-line-of-sight flight above 18,000 feet, at least 28 hours endurance in zero wind conditions, and able to employ a minimum of two precision-guided munitions.

Team Artemis is led by Quebec’s L3 Harris MAS while Team SkyGuardian is led by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, supported by the U.S. government.

The procurement process is now in a “review and refinement phase” as the government obtains feedback from suppliers on the preliminary requirements, explained Sandra Labbe, senior director for the RPAS project at Public Services and Procurement Canada.

The department expects to issue a draft request for proposals (RFP) in October 2020, followed by the formal RFP in March 2021. The project, which has an estimated cost of between $1 billion and $5 billion, would include the aircraft and associated equipment, munitions, training, materials support and a period of in-service support. Infrastructure such as hangars at a main operating base or forward locations would be acquired under a separate process.

As with all procurements valued at over $100 million, RPAS will be subject to the government’s Industrial and Technological Benefits (ITB) policy. Both bid teams will have to submit a value proposition demonstrating their economic investment in Canadian industry, which will be weighted and rated along with cost and technical merit.

MacInnis said one of the aims of the project will be to strengthen and expand the global profile of the Canadian sector “beyond the completion of the program.” He highlighted core areas where companies could contribute, such as payloads, data management and onboard processing, command, control and communications, and sustainment services, and encouraged collaborative R&D between the prime and suppliers to spur innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), cyber resilience and systems integration.

Value proposition commitments should also help build advanced skills and capacity in the sector through training programs, scholarships, technology transfer and other initiatives, and increase the “participation of women and other underrepresented groups in the Canadian workforce,” he said.

Team SkyGuardian, which includes CAE, MDA, and L3Harris, is proposing the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, a variant of the MQ-9 Reaper, a fleet that has accumulated over three million flight hours with U.S. and allied partners. Significantly for future suppliers, it is a fleet with global growth, both for military operations and for border security, humanitarian operations, disaster assistance and others, said Benjamin Brookshire of General Atomics.

He welcomed the application of the ITB policy and said previous experience with national offsets policies has taught the company that a strong local supply base can be crucial to meeting unique customer needs. “We have our own vested interest in making sure that Canadian industry is involved in this program,” he said.

Areas of opportunity for Canadian companies are sensor technology, integrated training, communications, avionics, composite manufacturing, AI and propulsion systems.

Recalling General Atomics’ start as a small company of seven guys in a garage, he encouraged proposals from companies of all sizes if they can fit the business case. “If you are like General Atomics and you’ve got a hairbrained idea like flying an airplane with nobody in it, we’re definitely excited to hear about it.”

For Team Artemis, L3 MAS has partnered with Israel Aerospace Industries to offer the IAI Heron TP, a mature platform “with tens of thousands of flight hours” over the past decade, noted Neil Tabbenor, director of business development for special missions and ISR.

IAI will supply green, certified aircraft and ground control stations while L3 MAS will provide the systems integration and fleet management expertise. The Heron already has some confirmed Canadian content – the engine will be a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop – but he opened the door to “any R&D effort” and “any capability” that will fit the program, though composites, tooling, wire harnesses and other manufacturing components were at the top of his list.

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