UK shortfall in UAV operators, robot vehicles, green machines at the TT, employers cry out for engineers, indonesian airlines suspended for safety issues, Guitar Hero keeps on rocking and more. 

UK forces face shortfall in UAV operators

By Dominic Lenton

The usefulness of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to UK armed forces could be jeopardised by a lack of trained operators. A review of the role UAVs play in gathering battlefield information found that action is needed to avoid a 70 per cent shortfall in senior operators when new craft are introduced in two years' time.

The House of Commons Defence Committee interviewed senior figures from the military and industry for its assessment of the contribution of UAVs to ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) capability. It heard that systems deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are providing "battle-winning capabilities" and are proving effective in counter-insurgency operations, but found concerns about the numbers of people trained to operate them.

Three types of UAV have been acquired as 'urgent operational requirements'. Reaper, used in Afghanistan since autumn 2007, is a 4,500kg vehicle with a 20m wingspan. It carries a full-motion video sensor and synthetic aperture radar and is armed. Capable of flying missions lasting 16 hours, it is operated by RAF personnel based at a USAF ground control station in Nevada using a satellite communications system.

Hermes 450 went into service in July 2007 in Iraq and Afghanistan and is provided by Thales UK. Weighing 450kg and with a 10.5m wingspan, it can fly for 14 hours, operating at slower speeds and lower altitudes than the Reaper, but has to stay within radio line of sight of the ground control station. It is launched by a contractor-provided external pilot and operated by Royal Artillery personnel before control is handed back to Thales for recovery and landing.

The hand-launched Desert Hawk 3, which carries out hour-long missions, has also been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with 144 vehicles operated by the Royal Artillery from 18 ground control stations.

From 2010, Hermes will be superseded by the Watchkeeper system that Thales UK is developing from the same platform.

A deficit of army UAV operators was identified as a 'pinch point' in the government response to the committee's report on the MoD accounts for 2006/07. This reported that between October 2006 and January 2008 the deficit had fallen from 51 per cent to 48 per cent as a result of take up of £10,000 bonus payments for three years service. Manning for UAV operators in the RAF is broadly in balance.

The Royal Artillery requirement for UAV operators has recently been increased in preparation for the introduction of Watchkeeper. Measured against this, the MoD estimates that senior operator shortfall based on current manning levels would be around 70 per cent. The army plans to address this through extra training courses and transfer of personnel from trades where manning levels are being reduced. Financial retention incentives may also be used.

The MoD also acknowledges that greater use of full-motion video has increased the requirement for imagery analysts, leading to a shortfall of some 18 per cent within the RAF. In the short term this is being addressed through training, and the MoD is developing an overall strategy for recruitment and retention.

Asked by the committee why the deficit was so large, Air Vice Marshall Stuart Butler, capability manager for information superiority with the RAF, said the situation had improved "considerably" this year and stressed that it had had no impact on operations. "What we are doing on the odd occasion is stretching people a little bit much, but we do not actually have deficit for supporting current ops," he said.

AVM Butler also admitted that there is a shortage of imagery analysts. "They are quite difficult to train, it is quite difficult to get the right people and at the moment we do not have as many as we would like, but we are working through processes to ultimately get us up to the level that we need," he said.

In their final report committee members warned that they expect to be updated on what actions are taken to address the problems they have highlighted.

Committee chairman James Arbuthnot said the MoD may have been slow to appreciate the potential of UAVs, but now recognises the important contribution they can make. "The UAVs acquired for current operations are proving very effective in collecting ISTAR information. However, improvements are required in how this information is processed and disseminated. The MoD must push forward with its planned improvements so that our armed forces can continue to achieve information superiority over the enemy."

Solar plane flies high

A British unmanned aerial vehicle has flown continuously for nearly three and a half days on solar power in trials at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

QinetiQ's Zephyr flew for 82 hours 37 minutes, exceeding the current official world record for unmanned flight which stands at 30 hours 24 minutes, set by Global Hawk in 2001, and Zephyr's previous longest flight of 54 hours.

The UK Ministry of Defence has financed the development of Zephyr. The US Department of Defense funded this demonstration flight under the UK-US Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) Programme for urgently-needed military technologies.

Launched by hand, Zephyr is an ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre aircraft. Paper-thin solar arrays on its wings provide power during the day and charge lithium-sulphur batteries to keep it flying at night.

For the Yuma trial Zephyr was flown on autopilot and via satellite communications to a maximum altitude of more than 60,000ft while carrying a US government communications payload.

Robot vehicles put up a Stellar performance

By Mark Langdon

Team Stellar has won the Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge, a competition to create an unmanned vehicle system that can provide advance warning of threats typically encountered by UK troops on overseas operations.

Launched by the MoD in 2006, the Grand Challenge attracted 23 applicants, of which 14 were selected to enter the competition and seven survived to take part in the final, held at Copehill Down, a village on Salisbury Plain specially built for urban warfare training.

The Stellar team's winning SATURN (Sensing & Autonomous Tactical Urban Reconnaissance Network) solution was awarded the greatest number of points by the judging panel after successfully identifying and reporting the majority of the threats planted in the village and recreated by actors.

For the final, the Saturn configuration comprised two unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) - one high-flying and one mini - and an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), all fitted with sensors to report findings back to a remote station using novel algorithms to process data and direct the vehicles' behaviour.

The system was developed by engineering experts from Cranfield University, Blue Bear Systems Research, Selex Galileo, Marshall SDG, Stellar Research Services and TRW Conekt.

Cranfield University lecturer Dr Toby Breckon said: "Over the last year we have all put in a great deal of effort into developing the technology, but I believe our success as a team is due to our unique mix of expertise, spanning business, industry and academia."

Cranfield's input into 'Team Stellar' involved creating computer-based software for automatic target recognition and coordination of vehicle guidance and execution. Blue Bear designed both UAV systems and their associated control and avionics systems. Selex Galileo carried out the overall system integration and was responsible for the self-forming communications network and the user interface that allowed a single operator to monitor the multiple-vehicle system. Stellar Research Services put the team together and managed the project, while Marshall SDG provided the UGV, and TRW Conekt designed the route guidance, obstacle and threat sensors for the UGV.

See our Grand Challenge picture special in this issue.

TT races to showcase latest in green machines

By Dominic Lenton

The 101-year-old Isle of Man TT motorcycling circuit is to host the world's first clean emissions Grand Prix next year in an initiative backed by the IET.

TTxGP, or Time Trials Extreme Grand Prix, takes place on 12 June 2009 alongside the established TT races. Teams, which are likely to be backed by international corporations, universities and high-tech institutions, will have an opportunity to showcase a diverse range of bikes capable of reaching Grand Prix race speeds.

There will also be an 'open' class race for small-scale teams who are interested in experimenting with alternative energy sources. These teams will be required to build their vehicle to a set budget using off-the-shelf power sources only.

Event founder Azhar Hussain said: "Although this is a radical departure from conventional racing, the TTxGP is a standalone race and a concept, which encapsulates the spirit of the traditional Isle of Man TT. We're about to make history as well as enrich the Isle of Man's racing pedigree."

US firm Brammo expects to enter its Enertia electric motorcycle in the event. Ivan Kuzmitz, a technical specialist at Brammo, said: "The TTxGP provides an excellent opportunity for us, and other clean-technology specialists, to build awareness and acceptance of these new technologies through the exciting spectacle of a Grand Prix race."

Kingston University, London, also plans to enter a bike. Paul Brandon, course director for motorsport and motorcycle engineering, wants to explore the viability of ultra-low-emission bikes: "Designing a solution for a course as demanding the Isle of Man TT circuit will further increase the impetus to bring cost-effective, clean transport technologies to the general public," he said.

TTxGP technical director Simon Maddison said the event was an exciting prospect from an engineering perspective: "We are reaching a tipping point in the search for and acceptance of alternative energy sources." he said. "The TTxGP provides a fantastic way of promoting and popularising these new technologies, serving to inspire young engineering professionals to tackle the pressing energy issues of the modern world."

Further information [new window]

Network pioneer remembered

By Luke Collins

It is 40 years since a scientist at Britain's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) invented one of the key concepts underpinning the Internet and most other modern network communications. Donald Davies presented his ideas about packet switching at a conference in Edinburgh on 5 August 1968.

Graeme Parkin, who now leads NPL's work on software validation and verification, worked with Davies in the 1970s. "Donald saw that if you connected two people together through circuit switching, it locked that pathway up," says Parkin.

Circuit switching had long been used for voice and data communications, with each connection taking over a number of links in the network for the duration of the call. Breaking a message up into small blocks of data, which Davies christened 'packets', allowed the message to be sent over multiple links without tying them all up at once.

"Donald's contribution was that he could see that this was a good idea and he could make it happen," says Parkin. "He was an ideas man and he was always three steps ahead."

Davies set up a team to implement the packet-switching concept, building one of the first local area networks in the world, which went into operation in 1970 linking NPL's computers.

The same concept, which had been independently developed in the US, was used to underpin ARPANET, a network built for America's Advanced Research Projects Agency. ARPANET became the basis of the modern Internet.

Davies, who died in 2000, started his career working with Alan Turing, the father of modern computing. He went on to work on the testing of networking protocols as networks got more complex and also to study cryptography systems for commercial and government use.

Employers still need engineers

Engineering skills remain in demand in the UK as technology businesses continue to expand and recruit new staff despite the gloomy state of the economy, according to the IET's 2008 Skills Survey. However, half of employers questioned said that graduate skills fall short of their expectations in one way or another.

Nearly two-thirds of the 400 companies interviewed said they expect to recruit staff this year, with a similar proportion citing business expansion as the reason. The degree of optimism varied between sectors, with 90 per cent of civil engineering firms planning growth compared with 78 per cent in the energy sector, 73 per cent in defence and aerospace, 72 per cent in electrical and 70 per cent in electronics.

But although confidence was high, companies were less certain of being able to fill their vacancies. Only 59 per cent believe that they will be able to recruit enough suitably qualified engineers, technicians and technologists to meet their needs this year.

Another concern was how well the skills of engineers at different stages in their career match the needs of industry. Half of respondents said that graduate recruits fail to meet 'reasonable expectations' in at least one of a list of skills including numeracy, literacy, communications and ability to work on their own initiative. Some 46 per cent said the same of postgraduates, but experienced staff performed better.

Further information [new window]

Blue-chip pig

Bath-based semiconductor firm Picochip has sponsored an appropriately-themed pig, named Chip & Pig, in the 2008 Bath Pig Parade.

One hundred life-sized model pigs have been on display across the city during the summer in a public art event celebrating the legend of Bath's foundation by King Bladud.

'Chip & Pig' was creatively brought to life by artist Claudia Phipps.

Picochip CEO Guillaume d'Eyssautier commented: "It may sound hammy but, Claudia has more 'sow know-how' than you can wiggle a curly tail at. On a serious note, it's not very often that you can give something so creative, engaging or charitable back to your home town."

There will be a Farewell Pigs event on 18-19 October at Queen Square, Bath, where all 100 pigs will be on display. They will be auctioned at the end of the month for the benefit of the Two Tunnels Project, a scheme to create a walking and cycling route along the line of a former railway.

Further information [new window]

Asia news: four airlines fail safety audit

William Dennis reports and comments on Indonesia's troubled aviation business

Indonesia's civil aviation authorities have suspended the air operating certificates (AOC) of four domestic airlines for failing to meet safety standards, following an audit of their operations.

The four, Helizona Airlines, Tri-MG Intra Asia Airlines, SMAC Airlines and Asco Nusa Air, have been given 90 days to fix their problems and carry out the necessary scheduled maintenance on their aircraft, or have their AOCs revoked.

In addition, 18 of the 38 aircraft of state-owned Merpati Nusantara Airlines have been grounded for want of maintenance, but the airline has been allowed to continue operating.

Bambang Ervan of the Ministry of Transport in Jakarta said the government has told all Indonesian airlines to revamp their training for pilots, engineers and staff involved in operations, and to adhere to safety standards. Most had complied, he said, but there are issues with some carriers. "Airlines that do not toe the line will have their AOCs revoked and there will be no grounds for appeal," he warned.

On the grounding of Merpati's 18 aircraft, an official of the airline claimed that it made the decision as it does not have the funds to carry out maintenance, repair and overhaul on some of the engines. The airframes of the 18 aircraft are also due to be put through an aging aircraft programme.

Asked why the airline was still flying, the official said the other 20 aircraft in the fleet are airworthy. He declined to say which aircraft were grounded.

It is surprising that Merpati's air operating certificate was not suspended. The carrier has a mixed and aging fleet of Boeing, Fokker, CASA and De Havilland aircraft. Its ten Boeing 737-200s and four Fokker27s, which are 26 years old, can be described as 'flying trash cans'.

The airline, which is in debt to the tune of 2.5tr rupiah (US$263m), is owned 93.8 per cent by the government and 6.2 per cent by Garuda Indonesia, which is itself state-owned.

In April 2007, MOT introduced regular audits on all Indonesian carriers following a string of aviation disasters in the country. Four domestic carriers had their AOCs revoked while five others were suspended. In May, the US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Indonesia's civil aviation rating, and all 51 Indonesian airlines are barred from European Union territories. Indonesia has the worst air safety record in the world.

View from Washington: music chief hits out at video game successes

By Paul Dempsey

Is the music industry run entirely by idiots? Actually, don't answer that. As you have probably guessed, someone out there in Smashey-and-Nicey-land has opened his mouth and pure nonsense has once more blundered out.

Step forward Edgar Bronfman, chief executive of Warner Music, owner of the sheet music rights to many a top tune and even a few classics. His beef, reported in the Financial Times, is that the makers of popular video games such as Activision's 'Guitar Hero' and MTV Games' 'Rock Band' are not paying enough royalties for the songs they feature.

Well, hello Edgar, but last time I checked we live in a capitalist society. Your company negotiated with the game developers, and then agreed some fees. Sold yourself short? I think the appropriate word here is, 'Tough!'

Nobody disputes that 'Guitar Hero' has performed beyond expectations - it is a billion-dollar game. However, as someone who has followed its development through numerous Consumer Electronics Shows and elsewhere (hell, I spent an entire morning trying to master 'School's Out'), I would have to say that it always looked like a winner.

How can so large a business sector continue to exist, particularly in the digital age, without doing any apparent R&D work? And after the debacle that was its attempt to deal with digital downloads, you would think the music industry was particularly sensitive to that.

Sure, 'real' music R&D is that subset of A&R (artists & representation, more formally) that seeks out the new big thing, and always will be. But to remain stubbornly ignorant of the technological environment and economy in which you work is asking for trouble.

Indeed, Bronfman does not even seem to have taken account of how easy it has been for Activision to make him look silly - starting by pointing out the awkward fact that extra money is already flowing towards Warner as a result of the game but from sources beyond it, including a new wave of iTunes downloads stimulated for the titles featured on 'Guitar Hero'. Seriously, did that kind of collateral benefit not occur to the music company?

Admittedly, music companies are easy targets. Other sectors make the same mistakes, just in a more arcane, lower-profile way. Right now, some people are in a tizzy about Intel's new Core 17 architecture with its very clever on-chip interconnect and core management features.

However, looking at the big picture, the ability of the company's Atom chip to stimulate a whole family of low-cost devices may have greater economic significance. Those tier two and three products were once - patronisingly - intended for only the developing world, yet suddenly cheap, functional laptops are also a 'must have' for first world executives.

The difference here though is that the guys at Intel (and AMD) probably do now have a grasp of the dynamics. Nevertheless, this example shows again how - regardless of your business - you have got to invest time and effort to play the right notes.

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