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U.S. Marine Corps Unmanned Systems Expand and Evolve

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“Logistically, we are driving toward having common platforms, as much as possible, for each of the four robotic categories. For example, we don’t have a medium-class platform – 100 to 200 pounds – identified yet, but I see that being developed in the future with different items mounted for different applications,” he continued.

RQ-7B Shadow UAV

A U.S. Marine Corps RQ-7B Shadow UAV launches from Speedbag Airfield during Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s Course 2-11. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Richard A. Tetreau

“That could include firing a small mine-clearing charge or different plug-and-play weapons for the infantry or a logistics helper using materials-handling modules. All the modules would be different for different missions, but the platform would remain the same.”

In the air, Marine UAVs range from the battery-powered Wasp III micro-UAV to the unmanned K-MAX helicopter, undergoing field testing in Afghanistan as a cargo resupply platform.

The Corps’ fixed-wing UAVs are divided into four primary categories:

  • Group I: The AeroVironmentWasp III, chosen for small unit use primarily to maintain commonality with the Air Force BATMAV. The AeroVironment RQ-14 Dragon Eye, only slightly larger than the Wasp III, which can be carried in a backpack and hand-launched, using batteries to stay aloft for up to one hour at a range of 3.1 miles. The Corps is replacing it with the RQ-11B Raven B, also produced by AeroVironment, hand-launched and battery-powered. While only somewhat larger than the Dragon Eye, its endurance is 90 minutes and range up to 6.2 miles. All three are used for close-in ISR support, especially in urban environments.
  • Group II: The Boeing Insitu catapult-launched ScanEagle is more than twice the size of the ScanEagle, but also can remain aloft for more than 20 hours, with a range of some 60 miles. The Corps currently is training with the Insitu Integrator, based on the ScanEagle but precursor to the RQ-21A Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS), which had its first flight on 28 July. The RQ-21A is intended to replace the ScanEagle, beginning in 2013, with up to 24-hour endurance at a slighly shorter (50 nm) range.
  • Group III: After two decades using the RQ-2 Pioneer, the Corps began retiring it in 2007 in favor of the RQ-7 Shadow Tactical UAV, both built by AAI Corporation. The largest of the Marines’ current fixed-wing UAVs, the gasoline-powered Shadow is 11.2 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan, can remain aloft for six to nine hours, reach a maximum speed of 127 miles per hour with a cruising altitude of 15,000 feet and a range of about 69 miles. It also is set to become the Marines first weaponized UAV.
  • Group IV: The Corps currently does not have a platform in this Group, but has begun an initial requirements statement for a larger platform that can address some of the current shortcomings in strike and EW capability.

The Kaman K-MAX, equipped with a Lockheed Martin mission management and control system, won a competition against the significantly smaller Boeing Hummingbird for the proof-of-concept phase of the Corps’ unmanned cargo helicopter program and has been deployed to Afghanistan for “an extended user evaluation” since December 2011.

Maj. Kyle O’Connor, commander of the Marines’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 1 Cargo Detachment deployed to test the Cargo Resupply Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System (CRUAS), declared the initial mission tests a success during a July 10, 2012, debrief.

Raven-B

Lance Cpl. Malcomlynd Williams, a Marine with Weapons Company of Task Force 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, prepares to launch a Raven B unmanned air vehicle during an operators course in Al Qa’im, Iraq, March 2, 2008. A Raven training team provided the Marines with a two-day course, teaching them how to effectively operate the lightweight, hand-launched UAV that is replacing the Dragon Eye. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Billy Hall

“We accomplished our mission, collected test data, and proved that cargo UAS is a viable capability. The reliability of the K-MAX was impressive. It was fully mission capable 90 percent of the time,” he said, adding half the downtime was due to inclement weather and the other half to maintenance and scheduling issues – but the former was rare. “Since it was an unmanned system, we were able to conduct flights during inclement weather when other helicopters couldn’t fly. We flew during the night, in the rain, dust, and some wind.”

The Marine’s VMU-2 is continuing combat test flights with two K-MAX helicopters, each carrying payloads of up to 4,500 pounds.

Capt. Caleb Joiner, CRUAS mission commander, said the K-MAX was more responsive in getting supplies to forward-deployed Marines than a ground convoy or even manned helicopter, with turnaround times by the end of the first six-month test down to seven minutes or less.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...