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U.S. military UAVs migrate to Linux

Linux Gizmos (May 6, 2014): U.S. military UAVs migrate to Linux

Raytheon is switching its UAV control system from Solaris to Linux for U.S. military drones, starting with a Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout helicopter.

Earlier this month Raytheon entered into a $15.8 million contract with the U.S. Navy to upgrade Raytheon’s control systems for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), according to a May 2 Avionics Intelligence report. The overhaul, which involves a switch from Solaris to Linux, is designed to implement more modern controls to help ground-based personnel control UAVs.

Raytheon’s tuxified version of its Vertical Takeoff and Landing Unmanned Air Vehicle (VTUAV) Tactical Control System (TCS) will also implement “universal UAV control qualities.” As a result the TCS can be used in in all U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps UAVs that weigh at least 20 pounds. By providing an open standard, the common Linux-based platform is expected to reduce costs by limiting the types of UAV control systems that need to be built and maintained for each craft.

When the upgrade is completed in April 2016, the VTUAV TCS will first see action in Northrop Grumman’s 41-foot long MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. The MQ-8C Fire Scout, which is itself a retrofitted Bell 407 commercial helicopter, is primarily used for reconnaissance, but can also be used for precision targeting support to assist other combat aircraft.


At the U.S. Navy’s request, Raytheon is converting the VTUAV TCS “block II” system from Sun’s aging, UNIX-based Solaris 8 OS to a “B2VL” version of Linux, says Avionics Intelligence. The company will “continue evolving the system to the military’s new Unmanned Aerial System Control Segment architecture,” says the story.

Raytheon will also implement more modern intuitive controls, as well as automate testing procedures, and support software upgrades in the field, says Avionics Intelligence. In addition, the company will upgrade the TCS full-motion video capability and shipboard messaging formats, while implementing a new training and simulation capability.

Assuming the Fire Scout implementation goes well, the U.S. military will then expand the system to other large UAVs. In addition to U.S. military UAVs, the systems will be used by NATO in its STANAG 4586-compliant UAVs. The TCS can also be configured in racks for ship-based operations, “shelterized” as a land-based system, or integrated into a shelter on land vehicles such as the Humvee.

A brief history of Linux in the military

Since the early days of embedded Linux, the U.S. military has been gradually converting selected computer equipment from real-time operating systems (RTOSes), as well as Unix and Windows platforms to Linux. RTOSes, with their greater real-time capabilities, still lead the way in embedded systems, especially in combat, but Linux is increasingly finding a role, especially in systems where advanced user interfaces and wireless communications are important.

Back in 2001, the U.S. Navy and GET Engineering announced that the latter’s commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) Navy Tactical Data Systems (NTDS) would switch to Hard Hat Linux, the forerunner of MontaVista Linux, and one of the first embedded Linux distributions. As cost controls were tightened later in the decade, the U.S. Department of Defense increasingly turned to Linux as a way to cut costs by providing common open platforms based on COTS systems.

In 2006, Concurrent Computer Corp. and Real-Time Innovations Inc. (RTI) announced that their Real-time Linux and middleware would support the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Open Architecture program for modernizing the Navy’s Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers. Numerous Linux-based embedded workstations have made their way to the military, including Intergraph’s circa-2009 TD-R 7X11R-S. Smaller, and more rugged tactical systems have also run Linux, including Mercury’s PowerBlock 50.

Rugged handhelds, first running Linux and later Android have also found their way into military field duty, including TAG’s Linux-friendly TC-100 (pictured). In 2011, Black Diamond Advanced Technology announced a wearable Linux-ready computer system called the Modular Tactical System designed to integrate into a warfighter’s uniform and equipment.

Linux was also employed in some of the U.S. Army’s early autonomous vehicles such as John Deere’s circa-2006 R-Gator (pictured), which incorporated an iRobot control, navigation, and obstacle avoidance system running LynuxWorks’s BlueCat Linux. Thanks in part to the major role Linux played in DARPA autonomous car challenges, many of today’s emerging commercial autonomous cars also run Linux.