VStar Systems brings signals intelligence to the civilian world

By Patrick C. Miller | July 18, 2017

The days of signal intelligence aboard unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) being the exclusive domain of the military might be nearing an end.

VStars Systems, a private aerospace and defense company in California, has demonstrated its modular signal intelligence sensor—the MA-C2E/Lite—on the Martin UAV V-Bat. The military uses signal intelligence for such purposes as gathering information on enemy radars and eavesdropping on communications.

However, VStar’s sensor is being developed with civilian applications in mind. These include search-and-rescue and counter-UAS operations.

Andy von Stauffenberg, VStar CEO, said one reason the military has access to signals intelligence technology is because the sensors are large and expensive, which means they can only be carried by large and expensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

“Most of the systems you find out there are highly classified because of the abilities they have,” von Stauffenberg explained. “Small UAV companies don’t have access to them—period—without going through the military.”

VStar took a fresh look at the challenge of making a sensor that’s more accessible to smaller drones and came up with the MA-C2E/Lite. The VStar team brought down the SWAP—the size, weight and power—of the sensor, as well as the cost.

“We ended up creating a system that’s small and powerful. It’s extremely light and it’s also modular—almost like a Lego set,” von Stauffengerg noted. “We can add the modules together to create a very large capability.”

During a recent overseas demonstration, the sensor flew aboard the Martin UAV V-Bat, a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft designed to fly from small areas with a minimal amount of support equipment.

According to VStar, the MA-C2E/Lite exceeded expectations by collecting signals from more than 100 miles away while flying at 5,000 feet. Over several days, other system firsts were achieved, including altitude, duration and range.

“We can custom-fit our solution into a UAV rather than the other way around,” von Stauffenber said. “Rather than a ‘one box fits all solution,’ we find out from the manufacturers how much payload they can carry and how much power is available. What’s the data link? How much can they spend on it?”

The sensor’s signal detection capability make it potentially valuable in search-and-rescue operations.

“If you want to use a small UAV and you have a person lost in the mountains or out at sea, and they have a beacon or a cell phone or anything else that can transmit, these types of sensors could be used for those sorts of missions,” he said.

In addition, von Stauffenberg believes that the sensor’s ability to detect radio frequencies from great distances make it useful for spotting and tracking rogue drones.