U.S. Military Budgets More for Small Unmanned Aircraft Services

 - July 5, 2017, 2:51 PM
The Aerosonde is shown with Hybrid Quadrotor kit that provides vertical takeoff and landing capability. (Photo: Textron Systems)

The U.S. military is budgeting for greater use of small unmanned aircraft systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support, says one of the companies chosen to compete for tasking orders under separate programs. In June, the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) and the Special Operations Command (Socom) awarded four total companies indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts with aggregate values up to $1.7 billion and $475 million, respectively.

Textron Systems has provided ISR services under Socom and Navair contracts since 2012, and in both cases the multiple military branches participating have spent up to the IDIQ contract ceiling, said David Phillips, vice president of small and medium endurance unmanned aircraft systems. The Hunt Valley, Maryland-based company will provide its Aerosonde UAV and support personnel for the latest contracts awarded by Navair on June 8 and Socom on June 7.

“What you’re seeing certainly now is larger [spending] ceilings under those contracts than previously, which says they’re using them,” Phillips told reporters during a July 5 teleconference to discuss the Navair contract. “There’s a great demand for ISR in the field. I think they’ve planned it well this time by coming in with ceilings that were much higher than they were previously.”

Navair chose Textron Systems, Boeing’s Insitu subsidiary in Bingen, Washington; Academi Training Center of Moyock, North Carolina; and the PAE ISR joint venture of Arlington, Virginia, to compete for land-based tasking orders under a nearly five-year IDIQ contract. Textron Systems and Insitu, which is offering its ScanEagle and Integrator platforms, also are eligible to compete for sea-based tasking orders.

Socom selected Textron Systems and Insitu to compete for tasking orders under the earlier announced Mid-Endurance Unmanned Aircraft Systems (MEUAS) III program, which also spans five years.

Under the Navair contract, companies will provide ISR services in a “double digit” number of sites in regions covered by the U.S. Central, European and Africa commands, Phillips said. Military services using the aircraft increasingly want multiple, interchangeable payloads, such as for communications relay to extend the range of ground-to-ground communications and signals intelligence to detect electronic emitters. “We found that signals intelligence is very desirable with our customers in theater right now. Those payloads are getting smaller and more capable,” he said.

Textron Systems’ Aerosonde, which the company acquired through its acquisition of AAI Corporation in 2007, is an 80-pound mtow, catapult-launched, fixed-wing UAV powered by a Lycoming EL-005 heavy fuel engine. It carries a payload of up to 20 pounds.

The use of a heavy fuel engine running on the same kind of fuel as a Navy vessel was prerequisite to providing sea-based services under the Navair contract, Phillips said. The contract also makes possible the use of a vertical takeoff and landing kit the company has developed for Aerosonde, he added.

“The system has changed over time, which has enabled the Navy to ask more from a requirements standpoint under this contract,” Phillips said. “The system provides significantly more increased power than what was available back in 2012, and we’ve done that through re-architecting the system—the avionics and the electronics system within the aircraft—to provide dedicated power to payloads other than the electro-optic/infrared or the day/night camera,” he explained.

“We have made available 700 cubic inches of space inside our fuselage with dedicated power—200 watts and up to five pounds [weight]—to allow them to very quickly integrate or swap payloads out in the field to keep pace with their emerging mission set.”