HUNT VALLEY, Md. — The gray fuselages of the Army’s workhorse unmanned system, the Shadow, line up on wooden carts in preparation to proceed through final assembly at this facility.
Business has been booming for the aircraft’s manufacturer, AAI Corp., a subsidiary of Textron Inc.
On the far wall hangs a large banner that tallies the number of flight hours the remotely operated aircraft has flown in combat — well over 400,000. Workers in December were anticipating that the total would hit 500,000 shortly.
When the Shadow was originally conceived, it was meant to fly only a couple hours a week. In current combat operations, the drone is supporting soldiers around-the-clock. The Army is planning a series of upgrades to increase its reliability and system capabilities. A beefier variant is also in the works, officials say.
The Army and the Marine Corps have ordered 115 Shadow systems. Each includes four RQ-7B air vehicles, two ground control stations and four portable video receivers in addition to a launcher, two automatic landing systems and other data terminals, humvees and trailers. So far, 76 systems have been fielded — 69 to the Army and seven to the Marine Corps. To meet the goal of 102 Army systems and 13 Marine Corps systems by 2015, about one to two systems are being fielded per month.
During a tour of the manufacturing facility located about 15 miles north of Baltimore, the company’s UAV production manager, Jack Barsotti, says that 75 workers put in 10-hour days, four days a week, to keep the production line moving at a steady pace. They are building about 10 Shadow aircraft a month. He points out that half of the work on the program is focused on refurbishing battle worn equipment and producing spare parts.
Across the way, engineers are working overtime to service Shadow engines, which need to be rebuilt every 250 hours of operation, Barsotti says. The company is averaging about 18 to 30 engines a week.
Workers last fall began integrating an electronic fuel injection system into the aircraft after Army officials determined that the majority of Shadow accidents resulted from fuel and oil-related problems in the propulsion system. Particularly during winter operations, the oil tends to be less viscous and can cause malfunctions. A blended oil is being used as a temporary fix to help withstand cold temperatures while officials look for a new oil system as a long-term solution.
“The electronic fuel injection system will make that [aircraft] much more reliable,” Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager of the Army’s UAS project office, tells reporters in Washington.
The system, however, will have no impact upon the current engine maintenance cycle, says Barsotti. The Shadow’s engines have the capability to “run hot” at a high rotations-per-minute to power ratio, which means that they are pretty much shot after 250 hours, he explains.
Part of the area next to the engine testing cell is draped off. Barsotti says this where construction is under way on a new cell to accommodate the larger upgraded Shadow that is expected to start going through the lines shortly.
Because the Army wants to carry more payloads, a project to extend the aircraft’s wings an additional three feet on either side is in the process. “We’ve continually added things to the Shadow that add to the gross take-off weight,” says Tom Bachman, division vice president for unmanned aircraft systems and advanced ground systems products at AAI.
The heavier payloads include a laser designator, a communications relay and a forthcoming tactical common data link. Rather than force troops to compensate for the weight by deploying the aircraft with less fuel, the longer wings will help the aircraft regain carrying capacity and extend its range.
The re-wing “will increase the endurance of aircraft from five hours on station to just over eight hours on station, which will provide much more flexibility for the soldiers,” says Gonzalez.
Hard-points will be incorporated into the center wing to accommodate future payloads and boost endurance by two hours. The addition of the wings also will increase Shadow’s payload capacity to 110 pounds from 60 pounds. Longer wings will help to minimize accidents during the critical take off and landing phase of operations because the aircraft will stay aloft for longer periods, he adds.
Bachman says the re-wings will start deploying this year.
“That brings our current fleet to a new level,” Gonzalez says during an unmanned systems conference.
Officials have begun circulating a “capability production document” within the Army to attain funding to begin an extensive upgrade to the aircraft. The proposal for the Shadow 7C variant includes enlarging the fuselage and wings, adding a heavy fuel engine and increasing payload capacity to 500 pounds to “take the Shadow to the next level of supporting the war fighter,” says Gonzalez. The system also would increase the manning level to 29 personnel from 22.
Approval from the Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Department of the Army is pending. There is currently no timeline on when these actions will occur, the Shadow product office within the Army’s UAS project office tells National Defense.
A notional plan shows that if the effort is funded in 2012, then low rate initial production would commence in 2014.
AAI also produces the One System remote video terminal, or OSRVT, the laptop that allows troops to view Shadow video footage on the ground, from their vehicles and inside Apache helicopters. The technology pulls down video from seven remotely operated aircraft and receives telemetry data.
The company is under contract for 2,700 units. It delivered the 2,000th one in late fall. The remaining units will complete delivery by November, says Tracy C. Horsley, product specialist.
Engineers are developing new software for the system that will allow ground troops to control the payloads aboard those aircraft for the first time.
“The idea is that I point the camera at something and the aircraft tries to get to the best location to look at it,” says Bachman.
The modem on the current generation OSRVT is already bi-directional. Using the software, troops can point and click on the video feed to take a closer look at something on the ground.
They can point at a moving target and engage the aircraft’s auto tracker or send the aircraft ahead of a convoy at a fixed azimuth and elevation as trucks move along the road.
There is only partial control of the aircraft with the bi-directional OSRVT, Bachman points out.
“The ground control station always has the ability to snatch back the aircraft if it gets into an unsafe condition, gets into malfunction or someone else needs to use it,” he says.
The One System ground control station, originally designed to operate the Shadow, is being modified to fly the Army’s armed Predator variant, called Sky Warrior. This iteration of the ground control station, dubbed the Universal GCS, includes a third crew station and software to allow video processing.
A GCS is a command-and-control system, first and foremost, says Bachman. But it also is the easiest means to bring images down from unmanned systems and do a bit of rudimentary processing, he adds.
“The ground control station becomes a little bit more of an exploitation system,” he says.
In current operations, the collected video footage is piped to analysts in the distributed common ground system, which processes the data. The new GCS comes with on-board processing software and a video storage and retrieval capability. “We’re targeting about 30 days worth of storage, but it depends upon the resolution of the sensor,” says Bachman.
Not only is the video accessible inside the crew station, but troops at nearby tactical operations centers also can connect to the system via the Web to access information from the archives.
AAI has delivered demonstrator systems to the Army and plans to deploy them with the TCDL-upgraded Shadows. The first operational system is expected to be fielded next April.