The Army is embarking on a campaign to incrementally upgrade the performance and operational capability of the RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial system, which it plans to fly for at least another 20 years. 

Lt. Col. Tory Burgess, Shadow product manager at the Army’s aviation program office, said improvements to the existing V1 model include extended wings, integrating laser target designators and weatherizing the system so it can perform in heavy rain. 

One of the most significant challenges is finding a new engine for the Group 3 UAS, manufactured by Textron Systems [TXT]. Burgess on Monday told reporters there is an industry “gap” where a small, efficient yet quiet engine for a Group 3 UAS should be.

“The engine that we’re looking for for the Shadow is a gap,” Burgess said. “There aren’t a ton of industry partners out there that — not that they can’t do it — that the business case allows them to do it with the weight we’re looking for, with the horsepower we’re looking for at the price we’re looking to buy it. It’s hard.”

A request for proposals for a Block 3 engine is expected before the end of January, Burgess said. The program is in the technology demonstration phase with one company participating: UAV Engines Lt. That company is the last standing of 15 that made pitches for the tech demo phase. The field was winnowed to UEL and small engine manufacturer Jabil [JBL], which was eliminated last year “because they just weren’t ready,” Burgess said. 

“We are absolutely doing a full and open competition,” Burgess said. “We’ll have the specifications for them to be able to plug into the Shadow and if other industry partners can meet that specification, it’s a full and open competition.”  

A Shadow unmanned aerial system (UAS) deployed to Germany on May 12 surpassed one million flight hours, the majority of which were flown in combat.

Shadow is the only Group-3 UAS to reach the million-flight-hour milestone. Group 3 systems have a maximum gross takeoff weight of less than 1,320 pounds and also includes the Marine Corps RQ-21 Blackjack.

More than 85 percent of those one million flight hours occurred during combat operations, Textron announced in a statement Monday.

RQ-7 Shadow, made by Textron Systems
RQ-7 Shadow, made by Textron Systems

The Army is in the process of upgrading its entire Shadow fleet to the V2 configuration. The current requirement is 104 systems, eight of which are used by Army Special Operations Command. Textron is on contract to build 102 Shadow V2s and the contract for the final two is in negotiation and will be finalized pending available funding, Burgess said. Replacement of the V1 configurations with V2s should be complete in fiscal 2019, he said.

The upgraded Shadow V2 is equipped for additional simultaneous mission sets, including communications relay, target laser designation, and manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T). With the Army’s integration of the enhanced Shadow into its combat aviation brigades, the system has been fielded successfully alongside Apaches for ongoing aerial scouting combat missions. 

The Army is considering integration of advanced payloads but has programs of record only for electro-optical/infrared (ER/IR) sensors. 

“There are several capable payloads out there that could be integrated onto the Shadow platform,” Burgess said. “We are currently just doing the EO and IR. We have the capability to do more, but it is driven by requirements. We are waiting for those requirements to be levied on us to integrate additional stuff.” 

Textron on its own dime is developing new capabilities and payloads for the Shadow in anticipation of Army requirements relative to emerging threats, said Senior Vice President and General Manager Bill Irby.  

“Within Textron, we continue to invest in improved sensor capabilities,” Irby said. “So we’ll do things from an internal R+D perspective that we has the opportunity to enhance the system’s capability. The Army only embraces that when it has a requirement, but we like to demonstrate the art of the possible.” 

In 2015, Textron also demonstrated the Shadow V2 aircraft with its own Fury lightweight precision weapon. Burgess said no requirement exists to arm the Shadow but did not rule out weaponization as a future possibility. 

The Army has plans to equip 10 AH-64 Apache helicopter units with Shadows to augment the helicopters’ intelligence gathering capabilities. Together, the manned and unmanned aircraft will share armed scout reconnaissance role vacated by the retiring OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.

Apache crews can receive full-motion, color video from the unmanned aircraft’s sensors, though the Shadow is controlled by a stationary ground controller. The AH-64E, the configuration to which all Apache eventually will be upgraded, has the ability to perform level 4 teaming, which means the aircraft can be controlled from takeoff to landing by the Apache crew, but the Army will gradually expand the teaming arrangement from level 2, Burgess said. 

Training air and ground crews to operate and maintain the aircraft in concert are ongoing, but the Army already has fielded at least one unit of 12 Shadows with a unit flying 24 Apaches in Iraq. That unit did not fly in combat on its deployment and has since returned stateside and is readying a report on MUM-T the Army will use to develop a concept of operations for what it calls its heavy aircraft reconnaissance squad.  

Since its introduction in 1999, Shadow has received various upgrades, including all-digital, encrypted communications, increased bandwidth and onboard power supporting multiple payloads in a single sortie. It also has received larger wings and engine upgrades to boost performance, range and fuel efficiency, as well as a network based architecture compliant with standard NATO requirements for interoperability.

Shadow is operated by the Army, Marine Corps, Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and the armed forces of Italy, Sweden and Australia.

“Achieving one million flight hours is a monumental milestone for the Shadow TUAS and its customers that demonstrates the Shadow system’s unparalleled reliability and performance,” Textron Vice President of tactical UAS Henry Finneral, said in a statement. “As the only UAS in its size to reach this milestone, our newest generation Shadow V2 offers the highest level of reliability matched only by its broadened set of operational capabilities.”