Flight sight

Qinetiq develops helicopter reconnaissance system for advance real-time data.

A system designed to give helicopter crews advance real-time images of the territory they are heading into has been tested successfully by the MoD.

At the heart of the advance reconnaissance system is a lightweight, high-performance experimental antenna that enables images to be received at what military chiefs call ‘operationally useful ranges’ directly from a Boeing ScanEagle UAV.

Developed by Qinetiq, the antenna was flight-trialled at the Hebrides range, which the technology group operates on behalf of the MoD. Mounted on the outside of the helicopter, it had to overcome the twin challenges of exposure to adverse weather and intense vibration from the aircraft.

The MoD described the trials as ‘gruelling’ but important to establishing that the new equipment was rugged enough to do its job.

The antenna, developed as part of the Joint UAV Extension Programme (JUEP), combines high gain and wide beamwidth — two attributes that are difficult to achieve in the same system.

This combination was vital if the helicopter antenna was to receive the weak signals produced by ScanEagle’s own low-visibility, low data rate transmitters.

Qinetiq said that forward-deploying a UAV to conduct reconnaissance before the helicopter arrives at its destination offers major operational benefits.

The UAV monitors the destination area and relays live video and other sensory data back to the helicopter, which could be as far as 60km away.

Stephen Watson, Qinetiq proposition development manager, said that the UAV would probably be deployed and controlled from a land base ahead of the mission.

Control of the UAV and receipt of video and telemetry transmitted from the unmanned drone would then switch from the launch point to the helicopter.

‘It’s no good the UAV being 60km ahead of the helicopter if the helicopter is unable to access the sensor information picked up by the UAV,’ said Watson. ‘Once the mission is finished the UAV heads back to its forward launch site, which then resumes control of it.’

The system could be used on humanitarian and rescue missions as well as during military operations.

The antenna is based on a Qinetiq phased array antenna technology that is used on Skylink, a commercial video relay service.

According to Watson, developing smart antennas integrated on to airborne platforms enabled Qinetiq to produce the JUEP antenna within the tight timescales dictated by the MoD project.