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UAVs and UGVs: Protector or Pest?

Though consumer-level drones have received a lot of bad press in recent times — near misses with aircraft, incidents where members of the public have been injured and flying contraband into prisons — within the defence sector, the high-end versions of this technology have the potential to save lives. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their ground-based equivalents, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), are experiencing ever-increasing proliferation.

Both UAVs and UGVs can be controlled remotely by human operators – who are often in locations that are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. They may alternatively even operate autonomously, through the utilisation of on-board computers. Their particular benefit for military use is the fact that they can go into situations that are too difficult or simply too dangerous for humans to enter, thereby ensuring that personnel are not unnecessarily put at risk. Examples include mine clearance, reconnaissance missions, supply transportation and recovery operations. They can also be employed as ‘first foray’ vehicles – i.e. ones that are intended to draw enemy fire (and are expendable), thus evaluating the level of danger and allowing enemy positions to be identified.

Large military UAV

One critical aspect is that UAV control relies on extremely sophisticated and secure software. This means that even if one of these units was captured it still could not be operated by that party. Despite having possession of the hardware, they would still not have access to the accompanying software, since it has been developed purposely to be difficult to reverse engineer.

The two categories of vehicle are developing continuously, enabling them to be assigned to ever more complex situations. As well as military tasks, there are increasing possibilities for use of UAVs in civilian-led application areas, such as emergency services, disaster relief, search and rescue, etc.

The basic criteria for UAV (and UGV) design dictates that these units must be both lightweight and robust – and if the design is to be effective then these core principles must be adhered to right down to the component level. Generally speaking, UAVs will need to incorporate high resolution camera equipment and video link hardware, but they may also have to carry weaponry. Likewise, UGVs require a variety of different sensor mechanisms for detecting the environment around them and also technology for navigation purposes (comprising compasses, gyroscopes, cameras, range finders, GPS, etc.). The weight that all this constitutes, as well as the space that it takes up, must be kept in check.

Harwin Gecko used in UAVs

A key determining factor in the speed of the development of UAVs/UGVs is the intelligence of the systems they rely on. Increased computing capacity is necessary in order to raise on-board intelligence levels. Developments in robotics are highly pertinent, particularly in the UGV sector. Current examples include units used to search tunnels in hostile environments and heavy load carriers (known as donkeys) which can be used to serve military supply lines. Developments in on-board intelligence require proportionate improvements to be made to the electrical systems and the electronics housed within the vehicles. Even though these vehicles may be small, the electrical/electronic content they encompass can be extensive. They need to have resilience to an array of different external forces – heat, vibration, shock, etc. They must also be well shielded from sources of interference.

Connectors and the accompanying cabling are vitally important elements in the design of twenty first century military vehicles, such as the ones that have just been described. It is through these that the power and data that increasingly sophisticated systems are dependent upon will be conveyed. In response to the dynamics that are now present within the military sector, Harwin offers a range of high performance connectors, as well as cabling services that are capable of delivering fast turnaround small batch production.

In conclusion, the face of military warfare is changing at an incessant pace. Consequently, the component suppliers that support military/avionics contractors need to be able to address pivotal size, weight and power requirements if operations are to be successful in these most demanding of all application environments.