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U.S. Marine Corps Unmanned Systems Expand and Evolve

A few good 'bots

“That was a pretty short turnaround time and allowed us to conduct six sorties per night. We could have done more,” he added.

Naval Air Systems Command, which manages the program with the Marines, also announced the Afghan flights have been extended through March 2013; an earlier extension carried it from May through September 2012.

Switchblade UAV

AeroVironment’s new tube-launched, man-portable Switchblade UAV has surveillance functions and transmits live color video. AeroVironment photo

“This is a great example of integration while fulfilling the ‘urgent needs’ of the warfighter,” NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. David Architzel said. “Every time you can eliminate even a portion of a convoy, you eliminate the possibility of someone losing their life from an IED on the roads.”

In June, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL) issued a request to industry for a smaller UAV to support forward-deployed squads. While noting it was making no commitment to a future program, MCWL said the Enhanced Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Operations Aerial Delivery (EMO AD) should be able to deliver at least 500 pounds of payload – in packages of no less than 250 pounds each – to multiple locations, including autonomous ship-to-objective aerial resupply of geographically distributed combat units up to 50 nautical miles from shore.

“No longer are we looking at a large airframe that needs a large footprint to support it,” noted Lt. Col. Sean McPherson, head of MCWL’s Aviation Combat Element Branch, adding the lab already has been conducting tests with the CQ-10B, a 625-pound payload gyrocopter from Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology (MMIST), in seeking a platform that could provide daily resupply to units as small as a squad. “We’re testing to see if it actually helps the Marine.”

While calling for “flexibility over a broad range of operational conditions,” the EMO AD Request for Information (RFI) also stated, “these potential systems may have a vertical take-off and landing [VTOL] capability, but it is not mandatory” – opening the door to something other than an unmanned helicopter.

“In response to significant changes to the nature of combat operations across the range of conflicts, the USMC has identified the need to create a family of flexible and scalable aerial systems that would enable an enhanced MAGTF to support two platoons of a Company Landing Team [CLT] operating in a distributed environment,” the RFI stated.

“Although the typical size of an individual combat unit requiring logistic support is a Marine Corps company, the flexibility to occasionally resupply smaller units may also prove beneficial,” according to the RIF. “Logistics support may be required from naval vessels directly to tactical ground maneuver units.”

At the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International tradeshow in Las Vegas, Aug. 6-9, 2012, a Marine spokesman said nearly a dozen responses had been received, although none of the major manufacturers exhibiting at the show would confirm being among those.

The Corps also is looking at a number of other specialty UAVs. They include:

  • Switchblade™, from AeroVironment, a back-packable, scalable platform for beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) ISR missions, but also capable of GPS precision strike “with minimal collateral effects” through the use of a miniature warhead.
  • Shrike, also from AeroVironment, a battery-powered, quad-rotor VTOL micro air vehicle (MAV) that can “hover and stare” or “perch and stare,” providing day/night ISR at line-of-sight (LOS) ranges up to 3 miles.
  • Stalker XE240, developed by DARPA as an extended endurance (8-plus hours versus a 2.5-hour standard for battery-powered UAVs), ruggedized fuel cell-powered airframe capable of multiple landings, launch at altitudes up to 7,500 feet, and flight up to 15,000 feet in adverse weather, day or night, with cold-start capability, and a turnaround between landing and relaunch of less than 30 minutes.

While ISR remains the primary mission for the Marines’ fixed-wing UAVs, efforts are under way to weaponize the Shadow to take advantage of targets of opportunity it may uncover during an ISR flight that may not remain vulnerable long enough for a manned aircraft attack. That plan hit a snag in October 2011 when the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned published a report stating the Shadow, designed to operate in conditions up to 122 degrees, nonetheless had fallen victim to Afghanistan’s soaring summer temperatures – which can reach 135 degrees on runways used by the RQ-7 – forcing Marines to turn instead to the smaller ScanEagle for daytime ISR flights.

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