A key decision that simplifies the program is that the Scavenger requirement does not necessitate stealth. This opens up the field of proven competitors.
“If you're not careful with UAS you get into the danger of making them cost-prohibitive,” Sargent says. “They need to be cost-effective, and part of that is that the air vehicles are relatively cheap, and also we don't have to put as many people in theater. That is the advantage to us. We may well need self-protection and stealth on UCAS—but for something like an ISR platform, to make them cost-effective, you need to pick and choose where you draw the protection boundary.”
This means that the French-led Neuron UAV will not be a contender for Scavenger's collection platform; nor would be any “productionized” version of BAE Systems' Taranis technology demonstrator—both of which are due to make first flights this year. Aircraft of that type may, however, inform the eventual UCAS requirement.
“Nothing's definitive, but we're looking at around 2030 as our target for UCAS IOC,” Mounsey says of initial operational capability (IOC). “It's significantly further into the future [than Scavenger]. There's still science and technology funding for that, because today's technology was yesterday's science project, and you can't grow that overnight.”
The immediate focus, though, is on Scavenger. Reaper operations have helped inform all elements of the process, and it is a possibility that the U.S. platform may end up meeting the requirement. However, the RAF is adamant that Scavenger will not simply be a new name for an existing capability.
“We bought Reaper to provide full-motion video, and in a short period of time we've armed it and put in all sorts of other sensors,” says Sargent. “If Reaper is selected as the solution for Scavenger, we'd be looking at the growth potential. I think our Scavenger requirement is ambitious, though of course there's a resource issue. We're thinking fairly near-term; we have a lot of infrastructure set up already,” he says, noting reachback to ground support for data processing, as well as satellite communications (satcoms), which become the limiting factors in many cases. “So rather than being too ambitious with the sensors, what we're very much looking at is the airframe and architecture.”
Work is being done to establish electronic architectures that would permit, for example, quick swapping of mission-specific sensor pods, enabling different equipment to be flown at different times on the same aircraft, cutting down lengthy and expensive flight-test procedures.
“Lots of companies are coming up with a 'common pod,'” explains Sargent. “So the pod is aerodynamically cleared, and as long as what's inside it is within weight and center-of-gravity [thresholds], you can put different products in it. That's enticing, because the clearance time and money is often what dissuades us from buying things.”
This concept has also meant that the Scavenger requirement does not tie the RAF to any specific sensor packages. Sargent says they want full-motion video, electro-optical and infrared sensors, and signals intelligence capabilities. “What we haven't done at this point is specified exactly what [sensors] we want. To make it cost-effective we've accepted we're going to go down the off-the-shelf route. And that's also a reflection that all that technology is very mature. Our challenge with Reaper is not really the limitation of the equipment, it's what do we do with the information? So for us with Scavenger, the advantage is in concentrating on some of the other areas —the reachback, the datalinking and the satcoms.”
Minimizing the staffing requirement and associated training burden is also a key factor being examined. To this end, a number of parallel research and development projects are being undertaken.