Deadline approaches in small unmanned aircraft competition

In 2020, U.S. Army soldiers would test fly aircraft leading to selection and contracts

Companies have just a few more days to submit  bids in the U.S. Army-led competition to be among the small “runway independent” unmanned aerial systems  that soldiers would test fly in 2020.

At the moment, platoons in the U.S. Army and Special Operations Command tow hundreds of unmanned, RQ-7 Shadow aircraft, each weighing around 200 kilograms, to remote areas on trucks before launching them on surveillance missions from catapults. The fixed-wing Shadows must stay within range of a runway, a limiting factor that the Army-led Future Vertical Lift program, which manages a wide range of research, wants to overcome with a new generation of aircraft.

The services want smaller, lighter aircraft “that a unit can easily take with them and don’t require a lot of support equipment,” said Army Lt. Col. Matt Isaacson, the program’s operations officer whose promotion to colonel is pending.

Plans call for acquiring two samples from three vendors for a total of six unmanned aircraft that would be flown in 2020 in a “buy, try, decide” approach to replacing the Shadows, Isaacson said in an interview.

The Army wants responses by Oct. 29 to the “Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems” request for proposals issued on Sept. 28 via the Federal Business Opportunities, or FedBizOpps, website, which sets flexible parameters for weight.

“This is a way to get industry thinking about a paradigm shift” toward unmanned aircraft that are “runway independent,” a capability also called point takeoff and landing. The Army is flexible about how those aircraft should fly and land without runways, he said. Options include vertical takeoff and landing or retrieval with nets.

The Army isn’t sure when the troops would begin flying the new aircraft in operational roles. The service has set a deadline of 2028 for the award of production contracts. This would provide a few years to incorporate technological developments in areas including additive manufacturing.

In other words, allowing some time would avoid “reinventing current systems,” said Isaacson.

Soldiers who test the samples in 2020 would be from platoons that operate the Shadow, which is built by Maryland-based Textron Systems.

“The Shadow has done great for us over the years, however, it has a rather large footprint,” Isaacson said.

Textron Systems in May unveiled an experimental drone called the X5-55 that the company hopes will give it an edge in the competition to replace the Shadow, although the company will not say whether it plans to respond to the September RFP. Unlike the Shadow, which has a traditional tube-and-wing design and combustion engine, the X5-55 has four electric-powered rotors, two on the front side of its blended-wing body shape and two on the back that can pivot between vertical and horizontal flight. This would eliminate the need for runways or having to lug fuel into the field.

Textron describes the X5-55 as a test bed for new technologies. “We are going to evolve the technologies we think are going to be relevant,” said David Phillips, general manager for unmanned systems at Textron.Textron has modified the aircraft since unveiling it in May, said Sean Baity, Textron’s chief engineer for the X5-55. Landing gear in C-shapes without wheels have been added for touching down on rugged terrain, along with four propulsion pods that extend from the body so that the flexible rotors can move around independently of one another, an approach Baity compares to thrust vectoring.

“We are building around agility, the ability to transition to forward flight and do that quickly while adjusting to terrain,” Baity says.

In the Textron Systems photo at top is the company’s X5-55 drone on display at the AUSA 2018 meeting. 

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Deadline approaches in small unmanned aircraft competition