Bulking up: Army's Shadow unmanned aircraft receiving upgrades for longer missions.
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.
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RELATED ARTICLE: Teaching Non-Pilots to Fly Predators Requires More Cockpit Hours in Manned Aircraft
The Air Force last fall graduated its first class of Predator pilots from an experimental program aimed at training non-aviators how to fly remotely-operated aircraft.
With the eight graduates either flying combat missions or training for operations at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., officials are making changes to the program to ensure that future beta test pilots are earning their drone wings with sufficient flying time inside the cockpits of traditional aircraft.
"They need more airmanship," said Col. Luther "Trey" Turner III, chief of the operational training division at Air Force headquarters.
Officials long have argued that flying the aircraft requires piloting experience and skills that must be gained and honed in the skies.
"It's a very demanding job to be a Predator pilot or sensor operator," said Turner, a former commander of the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron that flies the MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9 Reaper at Creech. "In some cases, you're laying down fires in close proximity to friendly forces. You integrate with unmanned aircraft. There are a lot of things that you need to know how to do. We need to make sure we're arming our airmen with the tools to be able to do that."
A shortage of experienced pilots available to convert to Predator and Reaper operators caused the service to look elsewhere in its ranks to fill the gap. The beta test program was created to help the service meet the growing demand for remotely piloted systems in the war effort.
With the exception of Air Force Academy cadets, all of the service's pilot candidates proceed through a course called initial flight screening at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Colorado. It is typically 18 hours long for traditional students who then go on to specialized undergraduate pilot training assignments to fly more manned aircraft. By the time they reach their formal combat units, they will have accrued several hundred flying hours.
The beta test program pilots also go through initial flight screening but do not gain more flight hours in manned aircraft before progressing to Predator-specific training courses and simulations. Officials have concluded that more flight time is necessary to hone these pilots' flying skills before they begin to operate Predators from control stations on the ground.
Future beta test pilots will acquire 35 hours of manned flying training instead of only 18 hours, said Turner. With the increase, students will receive two solo cross-country flights in addition to more flight time in the air.
"The goal is to take the students to the equivalent training level of a private pilot," he said. Officials are striving to give the pilot candidates 27 hours of flight time in the air with instructors. 11 hours of solo flight time and five hours in simulation.
"We are working to find a school to do this once the chief of staff of the Air Force gives the green light on normal production," said Turner. In the meantime, subsequent beta classes will continue with the initial flight screening program at Pueblo, where contractors provide the training. If Air Force officials cannot implement the desired syllabus because of contractual issues, then they will put beta students through both the pilot and combat systems officer syllabuses at Pueblo to increase their flying training, Turner added.
After completing initial flight screening, beta students head to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, where they undergo instrument training and take an unmanned aircraft systems fundamentals course.
The instrument simulator is a T-6 system with flight characteristics based on the A-10 Warthog. "It's what was available," said Turner. Officials have added more T-6 systems to the instruction program, including two emergency procedures simulators that will test pilots in stressful time-critical skills. They also have initiated the acquisition process to attain a different instrument simulator that meets Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
Officials said that the service needs the new systems in place by fiscal year 2011 because they anticipate exceeding Randolph's T-6 simulation training capacity in 2012. The sims must be movable in case the training course moves to another base in the future, they added.
The 21-day unmanned aircraft systems fundamentals course teaches the basics of UAS operations through academic classes and simulators. Sensor operators join the pilots during this phase, where they are taught crew resource management skills.
Computer trainers introduce students to the ground station controls for the MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9 Reaper. Last month, officials were expecting the arrival of a preliminary version of a new desktop simulator called the Predator Reaper Integrated Mission Environment, or PRIME. The first operational version is expected to be delivered in August.
When Predator pilots arrive at Creech, quite a bit of their advanced training is done in simulators, officials said. But improvements to the simulators are necessary if more training is to be pushed into the virtual world.
"I think they've maxed out what we can do in the simulator at Creech for now," said Turner. Officials are in search of a high-fidelity simulator that more closely replicates the challenges of maintaining a quality picture with the Predator's multispectral targeting system sensor ball.
"If we get a higher fidelity simulator for the Predator, maybe we would end up putting more in the sim," said Turner. "I think it has a lot of potential. We just need to make sure we're doing it right."
In December, the beta test program's second class was on its way to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., for the joint fire power course, which all Predator operators take regardless of their flying and combat experience.
Officials had scheduled to begin training the third beta class last month to be followed with a fourth next month and a fifth one in May.
"We will continue to tweak our training between the classes, and over time the production through-put will pick up even more," said Turner.
The beta course feeds into the Air Force's Predator training pipeline, which continues to draw airmen from across the entire force, said Turner. The formal training unit is expected to produce 280 MQ-1 pilots and sensor operators and 120 MQ-9 pilots and sensor operators during fiscal 2011.
--GRACE V. JEAN
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|Comment:||Bulking up: Army's Shadow unmanned aircraft receiving upgrades for longer missions.|
|Author:||Jean, Grace V.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2010|
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