The Marine Corps takes a key step this summer to modernize its UAVs
By GLENN W. GOODMAN Jr., Special Correspondent
The Marine Corps intends to purchase an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) off the shelf this summer to perform as a concept demonstrator for its future Tier II unmanned aircraft. The UAV will be specially designed for surveillance missions for midsize tactical units such as Marine divisions and regiments.
The Marines want a UAV capable of operations to a radius of 50 nautical miles and able to do surveillance missions similar to that of the Boeing ScanEagle, the interim Tier II UAV that has logged 1,200 combat flight hours since its deployment to Iraq in August 2004.
The Tier II system is one of a family of Marine Corps UAVs to be purchased or upgraded during the next decade. These include the Tier I aircraft, a portable, hand-launched system for smaller Marine units that operates at altitudes of 300-500 feet, and the Tier III for larger tactical organizations such as a Marine Expeditionary Force of 20,000-90,000 troops. The current Tier III aircraft, the Pioneer, has an operational radius greater than 100 miles.
Industry proposals for the Tier II concept demonstrator were submitted May 11. After stateside testing, the service hopes to deploy it to Iraq by next spring for assessment. The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico, Va., will use the demonstrator — a single system with a ground control station and multiple air vehicles — as a testbed to develop operating concepts and tactics, techniques and procedures, as a means to flesh out the performance requirements for the Tier II system, which is scheduled for acquisition in fiscal year 2008 and initial deployment in late 2010.
The concept demonstrator must be capable of operational airspeeds of 40-60 knots, up to 10 hours of flight endurance, and operations at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, but with typical mission altitudes of 1,500-3,000 feet.
Maj. George Ehlers, family of unmanned systems project officer at Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico, said it is likely other services will join the Tier II effort. Initial capability requirements probably will be developed in concert with the Air Force and Special Operations Command, he said. The Navy also has expressed an interest in participating in initial planning.
Ehlers said the Tier II program is funded as a new start in the Marine Corps’ draft fiscal year 2008 budget request and that the service plans to acquire 28 Tier II systems, each with multiple air vehicles.
Maj. John Giscard, branch head for unmanned aircraft systems at the Warfighting Lab, told Seapower, “before Systems Command gets too far down the road” in generating operational requirements, the concept demonstrator will feed data back into the process “so they’ll have much more refined requirements based on real-world experimentation rather than a list of ‘nice-to-have’ capabilities.”
The ScanEagle has logged more than 1,400 surveillance mission sorties. At 4 feet long with a 10-foot wingspan, it typically has flown over Iraq at altitudes of 1,000-3,000 feet at speeds of 40-60 knots for up to 10 hours.
Developed by Boeing and the Insitu Group, it can remain onstation above 16,000 feet for more than 15 hours and operate in high winds and heavy rains. It carries an electro-optical daylight or infrared nighttime video camera. ScanEagle is operated by Boeing contractors rather than Marines based on a “hub-and-spoke” method of employment.
“They have a central hub site that launches and recovers all air vehicles and maintains them. After an air vehicle is launched, control of it is handed off electronically to a spoke site with a forward unit, which conducts the surveillance mission,” Giscard said. “After the mission is completed, the air vehicle is handed back to the hub site for recovery. This concept of employment allows the hub site to launch multiple aircraft out to different spokes simultaneously, maximizing use of the available assets.”
“ScanEagle has been doing some great work in Iraq and has helped us develop some of our knowledge about how a Tier II system should be employed,” Ehlers said. “But because it is contractor-operated, and Marines don’t touch it, we really don’t get any direct experience and feedback on training, deployment and concept of operations. So one of the big questions we have is how a Tier II system would be employed by Marines. That’s what the Warfighting Lab will be trying to get a handle on with the concept demonstrator.”
The Marine Corps’ plans to improve its Tier I UAV involve one of the latest developments in the military UAV arena — the proliferation of small, hand-launched, fixed-wing UAVs, particularly among U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Marine Corps has used the Dragon Eye and the Army the slightly larger Raven, both built by AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif. They have been a boon to low-level unit commanders, providing them for the first time with an organic capability for conducting close-range aerial observation over the next hill, ahead of convoys or a few blocks away in cities without endangering personnel.
Both UAVs are battery-powered, propeller-driven and back-packable, and use a laptop computer as their ground control station. They fly autonomously to preprogrammed waypoints or can be flown manually, and they each carry two electro-optical or infrared video cameras. Made of fiberglass and Kevlar, both Dragon Eye and Raven are assembled by snapping various pieces together, and designed to land horizontally, break apart and then be reassembled.
The Marine Corps’ Tier I Dragon Eye, which can be launched by hand or with a bungee cord, weighs 4.5 pounds and is 2.4 feet long with a wingspan of 3.8 feet. It typically flies at a speed of 35-45 knots at altitudes of 100-500 feet for 45-50 minutes, transmitting its surveillance video to its ground control station from distances up to 2.5 nautical miles.
The Marines began fielding Dragon Eye in May 2004. Ehlers said the Corps had 53 systems in Iraq and five in Afghanistan, each with three air vehicles and a single ground control station. The service’s inventory objective for the Tier I UAV is 467 systems.
Systems Command and the Warfighting Lab have investigated potential improvements to Dragon Eye, including extending its wingspan from 45 to 63 inches for greater endurance and landing accuracy, and fitting it with a higher-resolution infrared camera. However, the improvements may never be implemented because the Marine Corps appears likely to transition from Dragon Eye to the more capable Raven B under the Army’s existing production contract with AeroVironment.
Last October, the Raven B won the Army’s Small UAV competition to supply an improved follow-on to the original Raven.
As Ehlers noted, “The Raven B has an improved [infrared] sensor and offers a number of other advantages, including longer endurance than Dragon Eye [90 minutes] and commonality with the Army, which would produce cost savings. We’ve been looking at the Raven B’s capabilities to make sure they mesh with our desired improved Tier I requirements and doing financial studies.”
Raven B, though a foot longer than Dragon Eye with a 6-inch-longer wingspan, weighs a bit less. Its range is more than 5 nautical miles.
To upgrade its Tier III system, the Marine Corps is interested in a new vertical takeoff and landing UAV slated to replace the current Tier III aircraft, the venerable Pioneer, beginning in 2015. Last December, the Pentagon’s high-level Joint Requirements Oversight Council gave its approval for the Corps to move forward with the vertical UAV program. The first step, an Analysis of Alternatives study overseen by Naval Air Systems Command, began recently.
The Marine Corps’ Pioneer UAVs have flown continuously in Iraq. As of May 7, five air vehicles had logged 14,479 combat hours since March 2003. One of the first operational U.S. military UAVs, Pioneer entered service in 1986 and has logged more than 40,000 flight hours over the past 20 years.
Originally built jointly by AAI Corp. and Israel Aircraft Industries, the Pioneers are slated for retirement by 2015. They continue flying four to five times per day in Iraq, Giscard said, with many missions flown at night. Pioneer is 14 feet long and has a 17-foot wingspan. It can fly at an altitude of 15,000 feet for five hours but typically cruises at 6,000-8,000 feet.
Last fall, the Navy began equipping the Marine Corps’ Pioneers with the new Plug-In Optronic Payload-300 from Israel Aircraft Industries’ Tamam Division, featuring a daylight color zoom camera or infrared camera with increased resolution and target magnification.
To sustain the Pioneer until it can be replaced by a new long-range Tier III UAV beginning in 2015, the Navy plans to replace its original two-cylinder, two-stroke, 26-horsepower gasoline engine with a fuel-injected version of the more reliable 38-horsepower rotary gasoline engine from the Army’s AAI Shadow 200 UAV.
“The Pioneer’s current engine is no longer being manufactured, so it needs to be replaced, and the Shadow 200’s engine looks like the best option,” Ehlers said.
Flight testing of the new engine on the Pioneer is taking place this summer, and engine replacements are expected to begin this fall.
The planned long-range Tier III vertical UAV will be controlled by the highest-echelon Marine Air-Ground Task Force, such as a Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, and also will support joint task forces.
Bell Helicopter’s Eagle Eye tiltrotor UAV, which the U.S. Coast Guard plans to procure, appeared to be a shoo-in for the Tier III selection until the Marine Corps slipped the time frame for the competition by a number of years due to budget constraints.
“The longer we wait, the more time we allow for other new [vertical] UAV technologies to develop,” Ehlers said.
The Warfighting Lab is experimenting with a “flying wing” micro-UAV, the Wasp. Its development by AeroVironment was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and supported by the Naval Research Laboratory. Launched with a flick of the wrist, the Wasp weighs only 6 ounces and has a 13-inch wingspan. It carries tiny forward- and side-looking color daylight video cameras. It flew for an hour and 47 minutes during initial tests in 2002. It could eventually become a Sub-Tier I UAV for Marine squads and platoons.
As stated in an August 2005 DARPA press release, “AeroVironment used innovative multifunctional materials concepts in designing the Wasp. The design uses a main battery as the wing structure that keeps the vehicle remarkably small and lightweight, while maintaining the capability to provide real-time images [with Global Positioning System] data via a miniature camera. The Wasp has exceptional flight stability, autonomy and durability.”
The Wasp’s flying wing is made of a synthetic plastic lithium-ion battery material developed by SAIC’s Telcordia Technologies of Red Bank, N.J., that provides both electrical power and wing structure. The material generates an average output of more than nine watts during flight, enough power to propel the Wasp for at least an hour at 200 feet above the ground. The micro-UAV lands automatically on a level surface or can be caught in a net. It features a built-in skid plate and break-off propeller, fins and rudder. The propeller is replaced for the next mission, while the fins and rudder snap back on.
DARPA gave the Marine Corps a few systems with which to experiment, Giscard said, adding, “It has proven to be very reliable.”
“A lot of work still needs to be done on tactics, techniques and procedures and a concept of employment,” Ehlers said, “before we can determine how the Wasp would fit inside our family of systems architecture. It’s a very nice little platform that appears to have a lot of potential.”