Since the 1980s, Textron Systems has been designing, manufacturing, operating and supporting some of the world’s most reliable and trusted multi-mission tactical unmanned aircraft systems (TUAS). European Security & Defence had the opportunity to speak with David Phillips, Textron Systems’ Senior Vice President & General Manager, Unmanned Systems.
ESD: SHADOW is probably Textron Systems’ best known and best established TUAS. Can you elaborate on the system and its capabilities?
Phillips: SHADOW is a programme of record for the US Army for a tactical unmanned vehicle. They – the US Army – have over 100 SHADOW systems deployed in their formations now. Most of them are in Brigade Combat Teams (BCT), but they are also in Combat Aviation Brigades. A lot has been done with SHADOW to team with manned aviation: partnering with APACHEs, being their eyes and ears and then sending the information directly into an APACHE cockpit to allow them to do targeting and things like that.
SHADOW is not runway independent in the strict sense of the word. It does take off with a catapult launch system, but it needs something like a soccer field to land. Initially, when SHADOW was fielded – this is our twentieth year of operating with the US Army – the specification was for a system that did not need a lot of dedicated infrastructure. There are soccer fields anywhere in the world. So, as long as you can land on a soccer field, you are good, you don’t need runways, you don’t need improved sites – just a soccer field. SHADOW was designed for an arresting gear type of landing. It has an automatic millimetre wave control that automatically brings it to its glide path and lands it. Then, the arresting hook grabs it – like on an aircraft carrier. That is not what the US Army now calls runway independent, but it is small and does not need much to operate (i.e. tactical).
SHADOW has about a 10-hour endurance, depending on the payloads that it carries, of which there are a wide variety that the system can accommodate. SHADOW was originally called the SHADOW 200, because it weighed 200 pounds. If we named it the same way now, it would be the SHADOW 500. So, while SHADOW has grown over the years, the engine has stayed the same. That becomes challenging. It takes longer to get to operational altitude, and you are burning fuel when the system is not yet on station.
SHADOW has recently been going through a block upgrade, which has been simply named SHADOW Block III. We just completed testing with the US Army at White Sands Missile Range. It has a new, quieter engine with 25% more horsepower to accommodate the weight increases over the years. Since the SHADOW engine tends to be criticised for being loud, the new engine has a reduced audible signature, alleviating those concerns. It was not a purpose-built engine back when SHADOW was designed; we converted it to its current purpose.
ESD: What altitudes does SHADOW operate?
Phillips: I shall say the specification is 16,000 ft density altitude. But most of our requirements are lower, based upon the payload in use. However, sometimes, you are working over mountain ranges where your floor may be 8,000 to 10,000 feet high. Then, you still want to be out of audible and visible range.
ESD: This is why I am asking – if the noise of the engine is a factor …
Phillips: If the noise of the engine is a factor, then you want to fly higher. But the new engine gives SHADOW a much lower acoustic signature. It is water-cooled and has just under 50 hp. That’s a big improvement for SHADOW. We also have a new high definition electro-optic infrared sensor and a 10-inch gimballed payload with laser designation, which is an important element of what SHADOW does – e.g. during manned-unmanned-teaming. It has improved weather performance. SHADOW often was limited when it was extremely cloudy or precipitating. It was only rated at a quarter of an inch of rain per hour, which can still be called “standard” for that size of aircraft, but now it is 2 inches of rain per hour. So, we can operate better in clouds or in and out of clouds.
The payload is probably the biggest change that the user is going to see, because it enables you to fly higher and still get high definition with greater stand-off distances. So, SHADOW will be even more covert in the way it operates. SHADOW has a lot of payload capability. It can fly various electronic warfare payloads, though the basic missions for SHADOW require a good EO/IR payload, some element of ability to team with manned aviation and to pass control of SHADOW to entities outside the system itself. We have what is called a “Level of Integration 3” capability in SHADOW where you can pass control of the payloads off to remote users, even to somebody with an Apple or an Android device. SHADOW’s full motion video can be viewed on a soldier’s Android device using a secure app. After a series of security protocols, the soldier can see what the SHADOW sees.
ESD: Can APACHE do the same?
Phillips: APACHE can do the same – in fact, APACHE can control the payload. Through a set of authorisations, a SHADOW operator can give an APACHE crew control of the payload. They can then determine – basically by touch screen – where the sensor is going to look. This will give them a picture of places where they cannot go themselves because it may be too dangerous.
ESD: Is there anything more you would like to say about manned-unmanned teaming?
Phillips: We pretty much covered it. Generally, when we say manned-unmanned teaming, that has this meaning to the industry. We aim to partner a TUAS with a manned asset to have the TUAS perform the dangerous activity, letting the manned aviation stay at a safe distance. How this is done in detail, is covered by Army tactics and doctrine.
ESD: I understand. So, what is the difference between SHADOW and NIGHTWARDEN?
Phillips: NIGHTWARDEN is a SHADOW upgrade. It has about 75% commonality with SHADOW. It was our own, company-funded development that was intended to give SHADOW users additional capability – primarily satellite communications (SATCOM). We redesigned the fuselage to enable us to put a satellite dish inside, allowing us to extend the range of communication to and from the aircraft significantly. It also has a much larger payload bay to enable more fuel, so that we can take advantage of SATCOM and operate at greater distances from the controlling entity. You might say that NIGHTWARDEN is like a small GREY EAGLE or a small PREDATOR, able to do SATCOM-controlled missions, but in a much smaller form factor. We call it a tactical, organic unmanned air vehicle with similar capabilities as theatre assets like PREDATOR or REAPER, which don’t belong to the tactical unit.
ESD: So, NIGHTWARDEN is not currently looked at by the US Army?
Phillips: Not at this time. Therefore, NIGHTWARDEN has focused on the international market. Not just for international SHADOW users, but also for someone who wants an affordable, satellite-capable unmanned aircraft system that can carry a high definition electro-optics payload.
Now, since you asked about the US Army, they are defining a future TUAS. This must be runway independent and they are not as worried about SATCOM. They care about ease of deployment and transportability. The US Army has selected our AEROSONDE in its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) version for their future tactical programme which is their future expeditionary small unmanned aircraft system. AEROSONDE is probably flying most prevalently of all unmanned systems in the world right now. It is flying over 10,000 hours a month for our defence services, including Special Operations, US Army, US Navy and US Air Force. The VTOL version, the AEROSONDE HQ, is a fixed-wing VTOL, so it is the best of both worlds. It has the endurance of a fixed-wing aircraft, but also the flexibility and the take-off and landing capability of a VTOL aircraft. This is good for the US Army, but it is also special for the Coast Guard and the US Navy. Small ship decks and helicopters do not work well with launch and recovery equipment for unmanned aircraft systems, as they can cause interference with the helicopter’s rotor blades.
The US Army is going to evaluate our VTOL AEROSONDE. They will buy several systems and field them with designated BCT’s. During this trial period, the users will figure out how they can use them and develop a concept of operations. The whole system, plus a crew of four that can operate 24/7, fits inside a CH-47. So, it’s very transportable and deployable. We can unload from the CH-47, assemble the aircraft and launch it in under 18 minutes.
ESD: And the ground station will be operational, too?
Phillips: Yes, the entire system is loaded onto a standard 463L pallet. The crew of four unloads the pallet, pulls everything out, charges up the ground control station, assembles the wings, gets the engine going and launches it under 18 minutes. The US Army is looking for a small, capable, deployable system that can react quickly. That’s why they selected AEROSONDE.
ESD: How do you see the future, what developments and perspectives do you see?
Phillips: I have always believed that the most apparent use of UAS is in the maritime domain. We are doing a lot of work in that arena and currently have a contract with the U.S. Navy to deploy AEROSONDE with a ship. When you think about situational awareness either for a fleet or a single ship, just think about the advantages you could get from an UAS being able to operate in a 140 kilometre range from the ship. Being able to operate a VTOL version of an UAS on a small ship will give that ship an unparalleled capability that it just did not have before – that opens up its whole area of surveillance. I am excited about that and the future of our systems onboard ships.
I am also excited for a future system that works with vectored thrust. And this system would also be all-electric. Instead of flight control surfaces, the aircraft would just have a single wing and have controllable elevation and altitude through four vectored props. This system would be able to take-off and then to transition to flight all-electric. The problem of all-electric propulsion is endurance. Therefore, for the meantime, the system will still have a combustion engine – not to produce thrust, but to produce electricity. We can then have an all-electric powered UAS that gets past the problem of endurance. We are investing in that, too.
ESD: With regards to the degree of autonomy that your systems have now, would you say that it is fine fit for purpose or does it have to be improved?
Phillips: The autonomy definitely has to increase. For us to operate under FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules, which would allow us to open up the whole commercial market for our size aircraft, we have to invest in systems that allow the operation of UAS in controlled airspace. So much work still has to be done in detect, sense and avoid technology. A UAS has to be able to determine autonomously if something is on its flight path and decide to take an alternative course to avoid collision with another aircraft or structures on the ground. You cannot depend on the operator, who is looking at a screen. There has to be something else. Whether that will be transponder, radar or optical sensor is still unclear. The problem has been having that level of autonomy 24/7, all-weather or in the dark. If we don’t get this into these kinds of systems, the FAA is not going to allow us to operate under General Air Traffic rules alongside other airspace users.
The interview was conducted by Ulrich Renn