From drones to robot civilization. General designer of "Kronstadt" about the future of UAVs in Russia
The Kronstadt company today is one of the leading Russian players in the market of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), developing a whole range of products for various purposes. Its unmanned systems not only enter service with the Russian army, but also arouse keen interest among foreign customers. Nikolai Dolzhenkov, General Designer of Kronstadt JSC, revealed his vision of the further development of robotization of warfare, which is the main global trend today, in an interview with TASS at the Army-2021 international military-technical forum.
- Nikolai Nikolaevich, an unmanned aerial system integrates various high technologies. How do you assess the level of development of these technologies in Russia and what do you think is the main thing in UAVs?
- Today the leading countries are striving to autonomize the use of means of attack and defense. Autonomy is the goal of introducing artificial intelligence (AI) and ensures that adequate decisions are made without the participation of an operator. This is the main purpose of artificial intelligence technologies. This is, like the tip of the iceberg, the integration of all technologies, which, in fact, is our goal.
How do I see unmanned aerial systems in perspective? It will be a kind of neural network, the elements of which will be able to interact with each other. Moreover, this network will be multi-level, starting from the mission computer inside the aircraft and ending with the interaction between these aircraft over a vast territory of combat operations, including all components - not only air, but also ground, space and sea. This is the main goal to strive for.
As a matter of fact, we are now focusing our efforts on increasing the autonomy of actions. It cannot be said that all this will be decided tomorrow. No, this is a very long road. But the fact that this is exactly the general direction of development, including primarily unmanned vehicles, is the main thing. Now the "man-machine" contour has been implemented and is working quite effectively, and people make decisions only at the top level right now. Most of our processes are automated, but should be autonomous.
There is a very large distance between these two similar terms. And just building a bridge, a road between these concepts, is our main task. These are not wings or engines, or configurations, or even technologies in the traditional sense of the word - although we have reached the level of advanced technologies. Without exaggeration, the technologies that we use in Orion are quite modern and in many ways are not inferior to the world level.
We still need to catch up in terms of target loads, element base, and power plants. But in terms of the general level of technology, we are not inferior. I say this as a person who has seen similar foreign samples of this technology - the same Turkish, Chinese, Israeli and American vehicles. But this, I repeat, is not decisive. The determining factor is the intellect, which we must pump up, I don’t want to say complexes, because these are no longer complexes, these are systems of interacting complexes. This is the main thing, what you need to pay attention to, what to bet on and emphasis. And the aircraft itself is already a lower level of implementation of this trend.
Of course, from the outside it is very important what kind of "nuts", bombs, engine, target loads and weapons are there. Yes, this is important, without this it is also impossible to do anything. But, I repeat, this is already an adjective. And the noun is how we teach our systems to think. This is the most basic thing in a drone now! Moreover, this cannot be demonstrated in any way at exhibitions, it cannot be touched, it can be shown only through the result of some actions.
The development here is multivariate. If we take, for example, navigation, now nothing exists in aviation without satellites, and the accuracy of navigation can be ensured only with the help of a satellite. This means that all other systems are auxiliary - inertial, which give low accuracy, and so on. But satellites are a very vulnerable component, since its loss leads to a global loss of navigation accuracy. And this problem must be solved by a combined method, achieving acceptable accuracy in the absence of a satellite.
And so on any of the systems. Any system needs to be intellectualized, that is, filled with the ability, each at its own level, to make adequate decisions in a particular environment.
In addition, the second absolutely necessary function is the ability to self-learn. It is most important. The system should self-learn as experience and databases accumulate, which it itself produces as it develops and operates. This is how I see the picture and trend of the future applicable in my field to unmanned aircraft systems.
As for the technological level of Russia and the leading Western countries, in many respects I do not like the current situation. Some isolation, which occurs in Russia for a number of reasons, greatly complicates development. In addition, in a number of technologies we have a lag, which, of course, needs to be compensated for. For example, we are somewhat inferior in target loads, power plants, although we are already rapidly reducing this lag. In practice, we caught up with competitors in aircraft weapons of destruction for this dimension. But we must achieve an advantage primarily in the development of artificial intelligence systems, which will determine the success of future exploitation.
The applied attribute of AI is to create a system that, firstly, is capable of making decisions in a rapidly changing environment. Not in a stagnant state, not in a stable environment, namely, in a changing environment without operator intervention.
And second, it is absolutely imperative to learn from your own experience and the experience of other related systems. They, like nerve cells, must be connected to each other. It should be a collective experience on which the program improves itself, and also without human intervention. I'll tell you more. I believe that a biological civilization is only an intermediate link to a non-biological civilization. An inevitable branch of development, since machines are more adapted to the environment than humans and biological beings in general. Therefore, it will be a normal outgrowth. First, components will be replaced in a person, and then he himself will become all artificial. And this will be the next stage of civilizational development, if before that the biological species does not self-destruct.
- How is the development of the Orion long-duration medium-altitude UAV program going?
- The Orion UAV program with a medium-range complex is the basic program and the main point of reference for the creation of various modifications, including not only reconnaissance, but also shock, as well as more advanced modifications related both to the proposals of the Ministry of Defense and supplies to export.
The world need for complexes of this class is quite obvious - not only reconnaissance, but also reconnaissance and strike. For this, three suspension points of various aviation weapons (ASP) were initially provided, including, in addition to unguided traditional weapons in the form of 100 kg caliber bombs, also guided weapons, which have recently been created by enterprises - developers of aviation and other weapons defeat specifically for the Orion complex. Among them: guided air bombs (KAB), guided missiles and air planning bombs. This is the main range of ASPs offered for use by the Armed Forces on the Orion complex.
At the same time, taking into account the earlier deficit of this class of ASP in caliber 50 kg, our company decided to start developing KABs, the main criterion of which was the maximum reduction in the cost of a "shot".
In an experimental format, we have produced a series of ASPs, which have shown an efficiency of more than 80% in tests. By this time, third-party manufacturers of ASPs took part in the work, which in turn developed planning aircraft weapons, also in an experimental version, in a caliber of 50 kg and guided missiles in the same caliber. Also today, development work on the creation of an ASP of 20 kg caliber is close to completion. All of them have combined control systems, including satellite navigation and laser guidance in the final phase of the flight. Our analysis shows that the most adaptive for solving reconnaissance and strike missions are KABs, which are not inferior in efficiency to guided missiles, and are safer in terms of interfaces when used with an aircraft.
What further development of the Orion UAV complex do we propose to our Ministry of Defense? This is the installation of a satellite terminal on board and a satellite communications ground station. This will allow, first of all, to increase the range of control and information acquisition. The range of obtaining information will be practically limited only by the range of the UAV, which, in turn, is limited by the fuel supply.
Thus, we will get the most complete function of an unmanned complex, conditionally, medium-range and practically equal in tactical and operational capabilities with American and Israeli complexes of a similar class MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance).
We hope that in addition to today's serial deliveries of Orion, the Ministry of Defense will order an additional number of satellite-based systems for delivery to the Armed Forces. In addition, this option will significantly increase the export potential of the complex, since foreign customers in most cases want to have a satellite component of communications.
We have applications for possible export deliveries. Negotiations are underway with potential customers of the Orion-E complex. At the same time, our position is that we are ready, at the request of the customer, to adaptively offer the installation of both target loads and means of destruction, as well as consider the possibility of locating the production of complexes on the customer's territory.
We hope to compete in the market with the offers of other participants. All activities to promote the complex to the export market, of course, are carried out through JSC Rosoboronexport.
As for the increased PN and flight range - while we do not assume this apart from the appearance of a more powerful engine. When a more powerful engine becomes available, some increase in takeoff weight and payload may be considered. But this is still a prospect.
- At the Army-2020 forum, the Kronstadt company demonstrated the concepts of the new Helios-RLD and Thunder UAVs. What is the state of these programs now?
- We proactively began work on the creation of an unmanned radar patrol and guidance aircraft (RLDN), considering this direction to be paramount for our country in the interests of creating a continuous radar field in the necessary directions.
Helios-RLD aircraft should be integrated into a network that interacts within the air defense system with an automated control system, and be harmoniously combined with the operation of manned RLDN aircraft of the A-50 or A-100 type. UAVs will be significantly cheaper, have a significantly longer flight duration and even a higher flight altitude, as well as a range. Thus, information awareness and airspace control will be ensured.
Today we are at the stage of developing a preliminary design and hope to receive a contract from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. We consider this development extremely relevant not only for the Aerospace Forces and Air Defense, but also for the aviation of the fleet and ground forces.
As before, preliminary work is underway to create a multipurpose high-speed UAV designed to work both in independent operations and in joint operations with manned operational-tactical aviation under the code name "Thunder". We also hope that the Ministry of Defense will be interested in this work and that our relations in this area will be formalized.
- Is it possible to use the scientific and technical groundwork formed by the Kronstadt company for military and civilian programs when creating a supersonic civilian aircraft?
- The Zhukovsky Research Center approached us with work on the possible creation of a prototype demonstrator of a supersonic "business jet" in an unmanned version. We considered this possibility and came to the conclusion that, given the required level of funding, the creation of such a demonstrator for solving a number of scientific, technical and research problems is realistic. The demonstrator will be able to answer a number of fundamentally important questions related to the influence of supersonic commercial flight on the ground infrastructure of cities and towns, and will allow designing a more competently real prototype. This is an important scientific and technical task, a global trend in which both American and Japanese firms are now participating. As part of a scientific and technical consortium, we are ready to offer our technologies for creating such a prototype.
This demonstrator should be in dimensions close to real, on a scale, for example, one in three, and not one in forty, since most negative physical phenomena do not scale. We had a meeting on this issue with the involvement of the heads of institutes, and they asked to use our groundwork in solving this problem. With the required level of funding, in principle, this is possible. Not only through the efforts of our team, but also of a number of enterprises, this problem is being solved using the existing groundwork.
But the creation of a real supersonic "business jet" will require the creation of a fundamentally different engine, which does not yet exist. And now this is the task of the United Engine Corporation (UEC). The aircraft must have a variable cycle engine specialized for supersonic flight with predominantly acceptable flow characteristics and with a variable bypass ratio. And this is a separate scientific and technical task, which should also be solved within the framework of the UEC state program as a priority. Without such an engine, the creation of a full-scale commercially viable supersonic aircraft is problematic.
Getting the plane to fly supersonic is not a problem. The problem is the creation of a commercial commercial aircraft. And this requires other scientific and technical solutions, associated primarily with the power plant and the development of the aerodynamic configuration. And all this together must have characteristics that do not degrade the environment, that is, have acceptable noise characteristics, emission characteristics, and so on. This is the main task that must be solved in this project.
We are talking only about an unmanned prototype demonstrator, which in the flight program will allow us to measure some parameters that will need to be relied on when creating a full-scale project. This is a very important intermediate step in the creation of a supersonic "business jet" or, in the future, a large supersonic aircraft.
- What can you say about the combat use of UAVs in Nagorno-Karabakh?
- From my point of view, we really have a successful demonstration of such unpunished use of unmanned technologies in combat operations against an unprepared adversary. I appreciate it this way. On the one hand, these technologies really allow you to hit targets without risking your own soldiers and pilots. On the other hand, the level of weapons that the troops of Nagorno-Karabakh had, of course, did not correspond to the modern level. And I would call it a "brilliant" marketing demonstration to increase the rating of the export potential. And against modern "Pantsir" (self-propelled anti-aircraft missile-gun system - approx. TASS), this story would not have passed.
But this is a very good illustration of the trend that prevails in the world in this direction today. That is, the robotization of means of warfare is the main global trend.