Textron Systems has delivered 104 RQ-7 SHADOW unmanned air system (UAS) systems to the US Army brigade combat teams (BCT) and combat aviation brigades. While the service is leaning into the future with different programmes designed to deliver a new generation of UAS, it is concurrently moving forward to keep its legacy SHADOW fleet relevant on the battlefield for ten or more years.
As the platform OEM, Textron is committed to, “sustain SHADOW, keep it capable based on emergent requirement sets that these units – which continue to fly 1000s hours a month with SHADOW – generate. We’re continuing to improve the capability of SHADOW, drive out obsolescence and make sure it is serving the customers’ emerging mission sets,” according to David Phillips, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Unmanned Systems, at the company.
The most recent platform programme improvement is Block III, for which army-sponsored flight tests began this week at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. This is the first step to qualifying Block III enhancements before fielding the capability to SHADOW formations. First unit equipped date is expected in early 2020. SHADOW Block III enhancements include a new, water cooled engine which will be furnished by UEL. The new engine will have a reduced audible signature to improve stealth, an additional 10hp and offer increased reliability.
The enhanced RQ-7 will also have a new, small mission computer. “This will increase the onboard processing power by 50%,” Mr Phillips added. Collins Aerospace will furnish the new computer. The Block III SHADOW will also gain improved airworthiness, permitting it to increase its mission performance in 2in rain/hour compared to the current requirement of 1/4in rain/hour – an 800% improvement. “But the most significant improvement noticeable to the user will be the new Electro-Optic/Infrared (EO/IR) payload,” the community expert observed and continued, “an L3 Wescam payload will go into all the SHADOWs. We have integrated a plug-in capability to allow the user to plug in that payload. What the user will also see a much higher resolution (high definition) imagery.”
Another UAS, AEROSONDE, permitted Textron Systems’ entrance into the UAS contractor-owned, contractor-operated (CoCo) business sector. With this fleet, Textron Systems now performs 1000s hours per/month of CoCo missions for conventional and special forces around the globe. Additionally, AEROSONDE HQ is the Textron Systems entrant to the US Army’s Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (FTUAS) BCT Experiment. In an effort to remain a step ahead of official army requirements, Textron Systems has developed a VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) kit for AEROSONDE.
Currently, AEROSONDE is a runway independent, unmanned aircraft requiring a catapult launch and net recovery systemme, which is transported in a single trailer. Mr. Phillips said the VTOL-configured AEROSONDE was Textron’s effort to remove the launch and recovery systemme from life cycle materiel. He continued, “Literally in five minutes, you can take a standard AEROSONDE, replace the booms and add new booms which have integral batteries and electric motors attached. You don’t need a launch and recovery system. You can still get eight-to-ten hours endurance, carrying the same payloads as a standard AEROSONDE, but now can land on a prepositioned or not prepositioned coordinate.”
While there is no service requirement for a VTOL-configured AEROSONDE, the platform has been demonstrated for US Army and US Navy. With regard to deployment, one AEROSONDE system can be transported in a CH-47. At the end of 2018, Textron Systems successfully demonstrated a laser designation capability on the AERSONDE using a TASE400 LD laser designator supplied by the former Cloud Cap (now Collins Aerospace). And finally, a synthetic aperture radar, manufactured by IMSAR, has been integrated and flown on an AEROSONDE.