Avenger drone autonomously tracks targets via infrared for the first time
General Atomic Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI) has announced that an Avenger drone managed to autonomously track and follow targets for the first time using a Lockheed Martin Legion sensor pod. The July 2 demonstration in southern California was described as a step closer to autonomous systems that can "support Manned-UnManned Teaming (MUM-T) in joint all-domain operations."
Air-to-air tracking and following targets by an aircraft – even a drone – is a pretty standard procedure, but usually relies on radar to locate and lock onto the quarry. This is extremely effective, but radar isn't always available. It may be necessary to fly without radar for stealth purposes, hostile forces might be using radar jamming systems, or there may be too much radio interference or background clutter for radar to operate properly.
To overcome this, Lockheed Martin developed its Legion Pod, which has already flown with the F-16 and F-15C fighter aircraft. The 98.5-inch-long (2.5-m) and 16-in-wide (41-cm) pod replaces active radar with a passive IRST21 sensor that features advanced onboard data processing to track and follow targets by detecting infrared radiation.
Because the Legion Pod is designed to use common interfaces and doesn't require extensive modification of the aircraft, it was possible to install the pod and its software into the Avenger Mission Management System (MMS) in less than three months. It was able to communicate with the Avenger’s autonomy engine using the Open Mission Systems (OMS) message standards, which made installation faster and less expensive.
During the recent tests, the Avenger used the pod to detect several fast-moving aircraft in the area and sent tracking data to the drone's avionics system so it could carry out the necessary maneuvers in order to engage the targets.
“This flight demonstrates a critical sensor capability that enables unmanned combat air vehicles like the Avenger to operate autonomously in Joint All-Domain Operations,” says Dave Belvin, vice president of Sensors and Global Sustainment at Lockheed Martin. “We designed Legion Pod to passively detect and track targets for tactical fighter pilots in radar-denied environments. This capability provides the data necessary to enable unmanned vehicles to track and engage hostile airborne targets without human intervention.”