UAS & Robotics

Next-gen Gray Eagle UAS aces flight tests

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct General Atomics Director of Strategic Development Chris Pehrson's name.

An improved version of the U.S. Army’s Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system passed an initial set of flight tests in late July, manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems said.

The MQ1-C Gray Eagle family serves as surveillance, communications relay and weapons delivery platform. The Improved Gray Eagle UAS was launched without mishap July 26 from El Mirage Flight Operations Facility in Adelanto, Calif.

General Atomics Director of Strategic Development Chris Pehrson said Improved Gray Eagle can remain aloft almost 50 hours, more than twice as long as the earlier version. Payload capacity has been similarly doubled to 1,000 pounds. The new version also includes a provision for a 360-degree traverse sensor, Pehrson said.

General Atomics also touts the Improved Gray Eagle as capable of operating for more than 24 hours per mission. ”That provides persistent surveillance, persistent targeting capability and the ability to [strike] a target if you have to,” Pehrson said.  

The upgraded version also uses the same maintenance infrastructure of its predecessor, including fuel, supply chain and a “parking-spot size” shelter. Also backward compatible are Line-Replaceable Units—maintenance boxes and payload bays—along with avionics, data links and other key components. 

That also means the widely used Tactical Common Data Link system will allow the Improved Gray Eagle to interoperate with Gray Eagle and other manned and unmanned aircraft and ground assets.

The deployed version of the upgraded UAS will likely feature triple redundant avionics, redundant flight controls and surfaces and electro-optical/infrared and synthetic aperture radar payloads. A tactical SIGINT payload can be carried for signal intelligence operations, for example.

Similar to General Atomics’ Predator, Reaper, and Gray Eagle, the Improved Gray Eagle is designed for attack missions, convoy protection, counter-IED surveillance, nighttime thermal and infrared detection and “forward air control” with laser target designation. Pehrson also said  Improved Gray Eagle “will fill a special operations role above and beyond the baseline program.”

Older Gray Eagles will not be phased out. The Army, which Pehrson estimated is operating “about a dozen” in Afghanistan, wants more. Ultimately, Pehrson said, all 10 active Army divisions are expected to have Gray Eagle companies. Typically, 12 aircraft are assigned to a combat division. 

However, Sofia Bledsoe of the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation, said there has so far been no Army investment in development of Improved Gray Eagle: “The Army continues to monitor [its] potential performance improvements,” Bledsoe said.   

Nevertheless, research and development continues for the improved model, Pehrson said. While there are still no orders for the Improved Gray Eagle, he added that “special operations, intelligence and G-2 communities” have expressed interest. 

Reader Comments

Thu, Aug 8, 2013

The real story here should be to question why, facing sequestration and other budget cuts, the Department of Defense is allowing the Air Force to WASTE precious resources piloting UAVs with officers and especially highly paid Senior Officers (Colonels & Lieutenant Colonels), most drawing Flight Pay and retention bonuses, when the Army and Navy have proven that low ranking enlisted soldiers are just as capable of flying them.

Air Force leaders continue to argue falsely that the comparisons between its programs and the Army’s are misleading because enlisted soldiers fly smaller UAVs that don’t carry the same weapons load as Air Force Reapers and Predators but that’s UNTRUE as Army enlisted soldiers are flying these massive MQ-1C Gray Eagle — a UAV that is a foot longer and can carry 325 pounds more than the AF’s old MQ-1 Predators. Army officials emphasize that enlisted soldiers operate their Gray Eagles, while rated officers fly them in the Air Force. What’s more, the Gray Eagle operators deploy into theater with the aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles instead of flying them from a remote Stateside location.

The Army starts training its enlisted MOS 15W UAV pilots straight out of basic training with the first nine weeks in a common core UAV training followed by the Gray Eagle training for another 25 weeks. The end result is Army Gray Eagle E-4’s are every bit as good flying the aircraft as their much higher paid Air Force contemporaries.

For a comparison, the effective pay (basic pay + Allowances + Tax Benefits) for a typical married Army Specialist (E-4) with over 2 years of service flying a Sky Warrior from Nellis AFB, NV is ~$41,500/yr while the Air Force would pay a typical married Captain Pilot with 4 years of service ~$87,500 and a Lieutenant Colonel with 18 years of service flying the smaller Predator sitting beside that Soldier at Nellis ~$130,000. The Air force Pilots would also likely qualify for an additional $25,000/yr Aviation Continuation Pay for each year they continue in service beyond their obligated term of service.

Maybe it’s time to disestablish the Air Force and turn their mission back over to the Army Air Corps! For a much more in depth discussion of this Air Force boondoggle, check out my Blog article at: http://old-soldier-colonel.blogspot.com/2012/08/drones-uavs-rpvs-argument-for-why-they.html

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