Unmanned Teaming in the Airborne Retrofit and Modernization Market

by Matthew Beres, Airborne Retrofit & Modernization Analyst, Forecast International.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. Image: USAF Photographic Archives

George Mason University was recently awarded a $25.5 million contract for the Mobile Unmanned/Manned Distributed Lethality Airborne Network (MUDLAN). Under the contract, airborne high-bandwidth, multibeam common datalink, autonomous connectivity will be demonstrated between tactical datalinks and swarming unmanned aircraft systems and small unmanned aircraft systems.

UAV integration and teaming with manned airborne platforms have already entered the airborne retrofit and modernization market. L3’s MUM-TX link enables control from the Apache Longbow cockpit of unmanned aircraft systems operating in the C-, L-, S-, and Ku-bands using both the Tactical Common Data Link and Bandwidth Efficient Tactical Common Data Link.  The system currently allows Apache pilots to control the Textron Shadow V2 and General Atomics Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft systems.

According to Col. Jeff Hager, the U.S. Army’s AH-64 program manager, the MUM-TX has only started to unleash the concept’s potential.

Meanwhile, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) intends to launch spy drones from its C-130 gunships to collect critical ISR information. This will allow C-130 operators to see the battlefield when onboard sensor views are obscured. The systems, known as tactical offboard sensors, or TOBS, will launch out of a common launch tube and fly toward a team’s location. Info from TOBS air vehicle sensors will be transmitted back to C-130 operators, who will be able to customize picture framing, zoom levels, and positioning.

Technology development and maturation are planned through 2019, and Initial Operational Capability is scheduled for 2020. Once the program transitions to the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in 2019, the command will be looking for drones, sensors, and other technologies to enhance the program. This effort will include a push for smaller sensors and radios that still maintain sufficient range.

As of now, the unmanned aerial vehicles are meant to be expendable and to only communicate with C-130 operators. In the future, launched UAVs may be able to recover in air, and to communicate with other aircraft or ground units.

With the widespread utilization and popularity of UAVs, unmanned teaming will most likely increase not only in the United States but in other countries as well, in step with the evolution of UAV technology and capabilities.

One of the most interesting developments to look forward to revolves around the human interface aspect of unmanned teaming.

Airborne human interface technologies are already quickly evolving to include multiple sensory inputs and output commands managed by pilots with minimal effort.  It may be possible even by the late 2020s for pilots to control connected swarms of drones with simply their thoughts.


Forecast International’s Airborne Retrofit & Modernization Forecast provides operators in the military and commercial aviation sectors with the information they need to maximize their current investments rather than expand their fleets, a trend that is opening up multiple opportunities for the expansion of retrofit and modernization programs. It offers a one-stop service for tracking the status of commercial and military R&M programs in progress worldwide, and pinpoints key developments in the aviation industry that will impact the market in the future.