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Army's Shadow UAS gets upgrades

Jan. 15, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By ERIK SCHECHTER   |   Comments
The Shadow M2, currently being developed by AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, is planned as a more-capable, longer-endurance aircraft than its predecessor.
The Shadow M2, currently being developed by AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, is planned as a more-capable, longer-endurance aircraft than its predecessor. ()
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The Army has big plans for its fleet of RQ-7B Shadows.

The Project Management Office for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, in Huntsville, Ala., wants to give the small, tactical drone a digital Ku-band data link and a quieter, more reliable engine. In addition, PM UAS has not ruled out the possibility of arming the Shadow, an effort the Marines are currently spearheading.

Meanwhile, both the Army and Marine Corps have been sharing service requirements with AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which has been developing on its own the new longer-endurance, higher-flying Shadow M2.

Introduced into service with the Army in 2002, and adopted by the Marines five years later, the RQ-7B offers brigade commanders a low-cost way to perform reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. However, PM UAS has still been looking to do more with the Shadow — and that’s where the Tactical Common Data Link program comes into play. The TCDL turns the Shadow into an all-digital aircraft, enabling easy data encryption without having to “have a bunch of boxes added on,” Col. Tim Baxter, PM UAS program manager, said during a recent briefing.

The TCDL also has the bandwidth to interface with sophisticated payloads, such as high-definition cameras, synthetic aperture radar and electronic warfare equipment, said Henry Finneral, vice president of AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems. This opens up new missions to which a brigade commander can assign his Shadows. Likewise, the Shadow’s digital data can be disseminated by a linked control station to “others on the tactical grid,” Finneral said, adding that such interoperability “brings forward the Universal Ground Control System that can fly Gray Eagle and Hunter, as well as Shadow.”

The TCDL-integrated Shadows will go by the designation RQ-7B V2. Late last year, the platform completed its qualification testing at AAI’s Hunt Valley, Md., headquarters and at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. This month, the RQ-7B is scheduled for final flight-testing, followed by an Operational Test Readiness Review in March. Finally, a Follow-on Operational Test & Evaluation will take place in May, and if all goes well, fielding of the new Shadow should begin after the summer.

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“It’s taken a bit more time than we had hoped, but I think it’s a very significant capability,” Finneral said.

New engine … and missiles?

Baxter said the Army has been making a concerted effort to reduce Shadow engine failures, and it had chosen two improved heavy fuel engines for the Shadow as part of a down-select last year. The first one comes from the incumbent, UAV Engines Ltd., and the second from Rockwell Collins.

“We’ve closed out phase one. We’re getting ready to go into right now, which is really integrating those two engines on the aircraft,” he said.

The goal is to get the engines to Technical Readiness Level 8 and a “mean time between essential function failure” of 1,000 hours. But if both engines meet the goal, there might not be another down-select this year.

“If they’re performing equally, then maybe we don’t down-select to one, we keep two,” Baxter said. “We’ve got good options right now in terms of getting them up flying and taking a look at their performance.”

As for arming the Shadow, the Army first looked at the idea in 2010, but the Marines have since taken the lead on efforts to place miniature munitions on the tactical drone. Still, PM UAS officials believe they could always change their minds later and piggyback off of Marine Corps development efforts.

“At some point, if the Army decides that they want that requirement, well, the Marines have kind of opened the door for us,” Baxter said.

M2: going higher, longer

Besides all of the work being done on the RQ-7B, AAI has been conducting its own internal development of a new tactical drone called the Shadow M2, an ambitious effort that began in January 2012. The M2 has a slightly longer wingspan (2 feet longer) than its predecessor, as well as a larger engine. Another difference between the two is the Shadow M2’s conformal blended body, which reduces aerodynamic drag and increases endurance. Finneral conservatively estimates the new aircraft’s endurance at 16 hours — a significant improvement over nine hours for the RQ-7B.

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The M2 can also fly at altitudes normally reserved for such aircraft as the MQ-1 Predator (18,000 to 20,000 feet). In fact, AAI officials are positioning the Shadow M2 as the budget-conscious alternative to medium-altitude Group 4 drones. To that end, the company has tested it out with an L3 Wescam MX-10 EO/IR camera. And last September, operators at a flight control center in Hunt Valley flew the M2 in Yuma, Ariz.

“Where we are right now is demonstrating new capabilities,” Finneral said. “We’ve demonstrated a beyond-line-of-sight capability using a SATCOM link.”

Finneral said there is “a lot of open communication” between the company and PM UAS, and the Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Air Systems Program Office, regarding the M2, and “they are interested in what we are doing.”

But he said he does not know if and when the M2 would turn into a program of record.

In the meantime, AAI is looking at international customers. Finneral said the first of several foreign demonstrations of the M2 is set for the first quarter of this year.

“We have a lot riding on some of these demos coming up,” he said. ■

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