Marines to upgrade tactical unmanned aircraft

Robot cargo helicopter supports forces overseas.

The Marine Corps is adding improved sensors to its fleet of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to provide better reconnaissance data to warfighters on the ground, a service official said.

These sensor efforts and the operational debut of an unmanned cargo helicopter supplying Marine forward operating bases in Afghanistan represent major milestones for the service’s UAS program, Lt. Col. Brad Beach, UAS coordinator at the Marine Corps aviation and weapons requirement branch, told the AUVSI Unmanned Systems Program Review 2012 conference in Washington on Feb. 8.

The Marine Corps’ primary tactical UAS, the RQ-7B Shadow, reached full operational capability with the delivery of the thirteenth aircraft in fall 2011, Beach said. The program is now focusing on increased endurance be extending the aircraft’s wings, improved communications with UHF and VHF radios and a weapons capability, he added.

Four Shadows are serving with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan as part of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) surge to provide the service’s warfighters with improved battlefield awareness, Beach said. The aircraft are on loan from the Army, which also provided support personnel and a ground station.

Another Marine Corps effort is the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter that has delivered 155,000 pounds of equipment to forward operating bases, hauling everything from water and rations to vehicle engines, Beach said. The robot helicopter, which Beach called a “flying truck,” has also helped save fuel, money and potentially lives by taking supply convoys off the road, he said.

Meanwhile, the service is working to upgrade its RQ-11B Ravens small tactical UAS by transitioning the fleet from analog to digital data links.

The Marine Corps is also conducting at-sea tests of the RQ-21A small tactical UAS platform. The aircraft operated from the deck of an amphibious assault ship as part of a six-month deployment with a Marine expeditionary unit, Beach said. The RQ-21A will soon deploy for a second time aboard a Navy command ship, he said.

For this effort, the corps plans to improve the RQ-21A’s sensors by adding a medium wave infrared camera, Beach said. There are also plans deploy the platform from the shore. The service is also looking into integrating UAS ISR capabilities on San Antonio class landing platform dock ships, he said.

The service is also developing a software reprogrammable payload capability for rapidly swapping out UAS sensors and work is also underway on a wide focal plane camera capable of scanning up to 4 kilometers of terrain and creating a high resolution image, Beach said.

In addition, the corps is developing a Link 16 StrikeLink capability that will allow UAS to provide burst data transmissions of tactical data and imagery to manned fast attack jets, he said.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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