The Army is speeding up delivery of some of its newer unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), such as the Gray Eagle, and expanding the size and range of its overall fleet to include a family of small UAS and Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) UAS, service officials said.
“We’re going to accelerate Gray Eagle yet again,” said Tim Owings, Deputy Project Manager (PM) UAS. “We’re accelerating from two systems per year to three systems per year, which will result in 17 systems being procured by FY14.”
A Defense Acquisition Board slated for this month is expected to confirm the addition of two more Low-Rate Initial Production Gray Eagle systems, each consisting of 12 air vehicles, five ground control stations, and five additional attrition vehicles, Owings said.
Quick Reaction Capabilities
The Army has already deployed two Quick Reaction Capabilities (QRCs) of the Gray Eagle, a 28-foot-long surveillance aircraft with a 56-foot wingspan that is able to beam images from up to 29,000 feet for more than 24 hours at a time. One QRC is flying with Soldiers in Iraq and another with U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, Owings said.
The QRC Gray Eagle aircraft are equipped with a laser designator, signals intelligence (SIGINT) capability, and an electro-optical infrared camera designed to survey the ground below, track enemy movements, and hone in on targets. They are also equipped to carry HELLFIRE missiles.
“We just completed the weaponization of QRC 1 in Iraq,” Owings said. “We now have flown flights in Iraq with the full weapons suite. They will have to go through a safety certification process on a firing range before they are allowed to go live.”
The QRC concept is designed to bring needed technologies to the battlefield in advance of a formal Program of Record, to sharpen requirements and get desired capability in Soldiers’ hands sooner.
The Gray Eagle program will also go through a configuration change to allow the Army to divide the systems into three platoon-size elements, Owings said. This will allow the Army to keep some aircraft in CONUS for training purposes while keeping most of the systems forward-positioned in theater.
PM UAS, under Program Executive Office Aviation, is also planning a QRC for the A160 Hummingbird VTOL UAS, a 35-foot-long, helicopter-like unmanned system able to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions and move cargo for more than 20 hours at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet.
“We are currently outfitting an A160 with a wide-area surveillance payload and a SIGINT package,” Owings said. “We intend to deploy a single A160 to Afghanistan later this year with two additional air vehicles now undergoing final integration for fielding in FY12. The big advantage with the A160 is, you get near fixed-wing endurance in a vertical-lift platform. That is something we have not seen before.”
The first A160 aircraft was provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The U.S. Special Operations Command is providing the next two follow-on aircraft, Owings said.
The Army is also developing a formal requirement for a VTOL UAS designed to work in tandem with the A160 QRC, a process that will result in a formal competition and selection of a new capability, said COL Rob Sova, Capability Manager for UAS, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
“We are going to be directed to do a VTOL requirements document,” Sova said. “A VTOL capabilities development document is the phase prior to the final document. We plan on doing a quick turn. We’ll have that document done in the first half of the calendar year.”
The A160 QRC will guide the requirements process. Ultimately, however, the Army’s formal VTOL program may or may not involve the A160, Owings and Sova indicated.
“Even if we wind up picking something different, we are going to learn a tremendous amount with the QRC we are doing with the A160,” Owings said. “When you get to the field, you get a chance to vet things out and learn a lot on the materiel side.”
A Family of Small UAS
The Army is also working on requirements for a family of small UAS, a process aided by the Proof of Principle deployment of several small UAS including the Raven, Wasp, and Puma.
Much like a QRC, the Proof of Principle for the small UAS is designed to get capability in Soldiers’ hands and to sharpen the requirements needed for the formal Program of Record.
“The requirements document is done. It is called the Rucksack Portable UAS requirements document. It needs to be amended because we got an increase in demand for the numbers, so we are working on the total numbers,” said Sova.
The Wasp Micro Air Vehicle is a 1.25-foot, 1-pound hand-held UAS able to beam images back to a ground controller from ranges up to 5 kilometers. The Wasp can fly for up to 45 minutes.
The Puma is a slightly larger UAS with a gimbaled camera. It can fly for 90 minutes. The Puma weighs 13 pounds, is 4.6 feet long with a wingspan of 9.2 feet, and can fly up to 500 feet.
The Raven, a 4-pound, 4-foot-long UAS, has been used in theater to provide security for convoys and Forward Operating Bases, Sova said.
- KRIS OSBORN is is a Highly Qualified Expert for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Office of Strategic Communications. He holds a B.A. in English and political science from Kenyon College and an M.A. in comparative literature from Columbia University.