WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army said it selected five companies to build prototypes in a competition to ultimately provide the service with a Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System.

Aerovironment, Griffon Aerospace, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Textron Systems were each awarded contracts between $1 million and $25 million to participate in five development phases and four option periods over the next three years, according to a Feb. 28 Army statement.

The Army began considering requirements for a replacement for its Textron-made Shadow drone in 2018 and by 2019 had narrowed the pool of competitors to a Martin UAV-Northrop Grumman team, Textron Systems, L3Harris Technologies and Arcturus UAV. Aerovironment purchased Arcturus in 2021. Shield AI bought Martin UAV in the same year.

The service evaluated the four drone offerings over a year with operational units, culminating in a spring 2021 rodeo at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Army awarded Aerovironment an $8 million contract in August 2022 to provide the Jump 20 UAS as an interim FTUAS capability that will go to a single brigade.

The service reopened competition in October 2021 with a request for white papers, which resulted in a bigger pool of bidders, Maj. Gen. Rob Barrie, the Army’s program executive officer for aviation, told Defense News in an interview last fall.

The new cast of bidders contain all of the old ones, except for L3Harris. Sierra Nevada and Madison, Alabama-based Griffon Aerospace are newcomers; neither participated in the FTUAS Increment 1 competition. Boeing’s Insitu also told Defense News it had submitted a bid for the second increment of the competition last fall.

The Increment 2 effort will include a series of design reviews through the base period of the contract and two option periods, according to the Army. The remaining competitors will demonstrate capabilities in actual flight demonstrations and will go through third-party verification of modular open system architectures during the third option period of the contract.

If competitors pass through the gauntlet into the fourth option period, each team will provide air vehicles, mission systems packages, payloads and ground controllers among other tools and manuals in order to go through qualification testing and operational assessments, the Army stated.

Evaluation activities

“These systems will undergo numerous evaluation activities such as environmental testing, electromagnetic environmental effects testing, MOSA verification, and flight qualification testing” conducted at both company and government test facilities, the Army said in its statement.

The Army primarily wants its FTUAS to be a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, in order to be runway independent. Additionally, the service wants the system to have improved maneuverability and the capability to control the UAS on the move. Other attributes include a reduced transportation and logistics footprint and a quieter system than is offered today to avoid enemy detection.

The FTUAS should “improve the brigade combat team’s ability to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance operations that collect, develop, and report actionable intelligence information about the enemy in degraded Global Positioning System environments,” the statement adds.

While the Army did not detail its timeline for the contract and when it will exercise options as part of that in its announcement, according to fiscal 2023 Army budget documents, the service plans to wrap up its competitive prototyping effort in the first quarter of FY25.

The Army is then slated to make a rapid fielding decision in the second quarter of FY25 and to hold an operation evaluation in the third quarter of FY25. The system is planned to then enter full-rate production in the second quarter of FY26.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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