USAF Plans To Drastically Boost Flexibility of U-2s and RQ-4s By Adding Modular 'Agile Pods'

The plan is to try to cram a number of different cameras and a laser imager into one modular sensor pod.

USAF

The U.S. Air Force is planning to hire a contractor in the coming months to demonstrate a new sensor suite that blends together various powerful multi-mode cameras with a laser-imaging system into a single, relatively compact package. The service wants it to be small enough to fit inside its AgilePod modular sensor pod, which could then go onto either a manned U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane or unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk drone.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (ARFL) first announced plans for the project back in July 2018, at which time it expected to hand the contract, worth approximately $92 million, directly to UTC Aerospace Systems, also known as UTAS. On Aug. 15, 2018, the Air Force decided to hold a full competition for the work, stating its plans to issue a formal solicitation early in the 2019 Fiscal Year, which begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

AFRL had originally argued that hiring UTAS made the most sense since the company makes the MS-177 multi-spectral sensor system, which will be at the core of the suite of sensors it is looking to acquire. The complete setup will also include a UTAS-supplied short-wave infrared camera and a UTAS-designed telescope to increase the range of the MS-177, which the firm developed for the Air Force as part of a project known as Standoff High Resolution Imaging Next Era, or SHRINE.

The Multi-Mode LADAR, or M2L, a laser-imaging system, is “government-designed,” according to the original contracting announcement, as is the AgilePod. The Air Force owns the design rights and trademark to AgilePod, which it developed in cooperation with the KeyW Corporation starting 2016.

USAF

The US Air Force's AgilePod modular sensor pod with a pair of sensor turrets from an earlier test in 2017.

AgilePod is a "lego-like" system that can consist of between three and five individual sections, each of which is able to house a different sensor system. You can read more about how it works and the inherent benefits in our past profile of this modular system here.

The new sensor suite will include a “novel hyperspectral imager,” as well, but it’s unclear who might be the source of this system. Not to miss the opportunity for another convoluted acronym, the service has dubbed the entire, combined project CHASM, standing for Contract for Hyperspectral, AgilePod, SHRINE and M2L.

It's not clear how the Air Force expects all of these sensors to fit inside the same space and weight limits as the standard MS-177 or not require any additional power. It is very possible that the service could eventually abandon that plan and as whichever contractor it hires to integrate various portions of the complete package into multiple payload bays in a single AgilePod.

KeyW Corporation

A graphic showing AgilePod's modular nature.

By itself, the MS-177 is already a powerful sensor system, which takes imagery of targets at long distances across seven different spectral bands and then fuses them into a single, one-meter resolution image. A single camera able to capture still or video imagery in any one band might not be able to pick up certain details, but together they can produce a highly detailed image.

UTAS has also developed the improved MS-177A, which expands this “spectral performance” to 10 bands, allowing for even more detailed imagery. In addition to the imaging component, this sensor system also has geo-location capabilities, a ground moving target indicator mode, a wide-area persistent surveillance functionality that allows for the rapid collection of imagery across a broad zone of interest.

Northrop Grumman

A sample image from an MS-177 during a test of the system on board an RQ-4 drone.

The Air Force's goal is for the entire suite to not exceed “the size, weight, and power (SWaP) limitations of the MS-177,” according to the ARFL contracting notice. Needless to say, this would offer significantly enhanced capabilities over the base UTAS sensor system.

The new telescope, in particular, combined with either the high-altitude capabilities of the U-2S or the RQ-4, could let those aircraft peer even further into denied areas using a slanted flight path, all while still remaining safely away from enemy air defenses or other threats. The Dragon Lady remains in service and able to fly in “marginally contested” areas in no small part because of this operating concept. It can also fly considerably higher than the Global Hawk, improving its capabilities in this regard, which convinced the Air Force to abandon plans to replace the Cold War-era jets with drones, at least for the foreseeable future.

Adding aerial LADAR, also known as LIDAR, to the mix would also give the sensor suite the ability to produce three-dimensional renders of a target area. These systems can also detect objects underneath dense foliage and spot subtle differences in surface elevation that could be indicators of buried objects, such as improvised explosive devices.

National Park Service

An image of prehistoric Native American mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument created using aerial LADAR. In military applications, laser imaging systems can use these same capabilities to map and uncover similarly subtle structures and other objects of interest. 

Hyperspectral imaging also allows for the collection of imagery that can show variations in surface density or otherwise identify objects by their physical composition. This again could help spot roadside bombs and other objects hidden under various types of natural and man-made camouflage.

By configuring the entire sensor suite to fit inside the AgilePod, the Air Force is also setting it up to be easy for personnel on the ground to rapidly swap it out for other sensors, if necessary. Lockheed Martin, which developed the U-2S and continues to support the aircraft, is already working with the service on ways to consolidate and expand the aircraft’s sensor capabilities.

At present, the Dragon Lady can carry either Senior Year Electro Optical Reconnaissance System-2 (SYERS-2), from which UTAS derived the MS-177, or the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System-2 (ASARS-2) in its nose, but not both. So-called “super pods” under the wings carry electronic and signals intelligence sensors.

Substituting one or both of the super pods for AgilePods could offer a way to allow the U-2S to carry both the MS-177 and the ASARS-2 at the same time, as well as other sensors, depending on how much space there is left over. Having more and more varied sensors on a single aircraft would only improve its flexibility during every sortie, as well as reduce the total number of aircraft and sorties necessary to gather the same amount of intelligence.

USAF

A U-2S fitted with the ASARS-2 nose.

Regardless, swapping out the modular pods or the sensors inside of them would be easier than reconfiguring the Dragon Lady’s nose. Ground crews could even have multiple pods with different combinations of sensors ready to go, further reducing the time it might take to install the desire sensor package on an aircraft before a mission.

Units operating RQ-4s would see the same benefits from using an AgilePod-based system. The Global Hawk has its own modular Universal Payload Adapter and any upgraded MS-177-based sensor that retains the basic size, weight, and power requirements would be able to fit inside that space, as well.

Northrop Grumman

An RQ-4 Global Hawk carrying the SYERS-2 system via its Universal Payload Adapter.

The Air Force is also looking at integrating AgilePod onto other types of manned planes and drones, including the MQ-9 Reaper, and has tested the pod on a World War II-era DC-3, an RC-26 surveillance aircraft, and Textron's Scorpion light jet. This would help the service save money and reduce logistical strain since it could buy the basic pods in bulk and then issue them to different units no matter what aircraft they operate.

It's not obvious how the Air Force expects to fit the pod onto either the U-2S or RQ-4. Unlike the previous AgilePod test platforms, both of these aircraft have long, slender wings that are ill-suited to underwing stores and low ground clearance, which would make it difficult to attach the pod to the underside of the fuselage. Whoever the service hires to perform the work will have to solve this integration challenge, along with the aforementioned issue of having to find a way to consolidate all of the sensors to begin with.

USAF

AgilePod under the wing of an MQ-9 Reaper drone, a mounting option that is not likely to work with either the U-2S or RQ-4.

But if the upcoming CHASM demonstration is successful, the additional capabilities on top of the existing MS-177 camera system could definitely be a major boon to both the U-2S and the RQ-4 and for the Dragon Ladies it would present yet another argument for continuing to keep them flying for years to come. It’s also yet another example of the many potential benefits of the AgilePod.

The Air Force had originally hoped to begin work on the new sensor suite sometime in the 2019 Fiscal Year, but now that the service is planning to hold an open competition for the contract it’s likely whatever the original schedule was has gotten pushed back. It’s still very possible that we could see a U-2S or RQ-4 flying with the new podded sensors in the coming year and we’ll definitely be keeping our eyes out for any indication that the flight testing has started.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com