A new industry partnership could bring the Army and Marine Corps a step closer to incorporating manned-unmanned teaming concepts into combat operations.

Unmanned aerial vehicle-maker Aerovironment has partnered with General Dynamics Land Systems [GD] to integrate two of its systems onto the vehiclemaker’s new armored reconnaissance vehicle (ARV), in development for the Marines, the company said Oct. 8 at the Association for the United States Army’s (AUSA) annual conference in Washington, D.C. 

Artistic rendering of Aerovironment's Shrike 2 UAV and Switchblade loitering munition paired with General Dynamics' armored reconnaissance vehicle in development for the U.S. Marine Corps. (Image: Aerovironment)
Artistic rendering of Aerovironment’s Shrike 2 UAV and Switchblade loitering munition paired with General Dynamics’ armored reconnaissance vehicle in development for the U.S. Marine Corps. (Image: Aerovironment)

The companies are putting their own R&D dollars into putting Aerovironment’s Switchblade loitering munition as well as its forthcoming Shrike 2 hybrid vertical and takeoff reconnaissance drone onto the new vehicle, said Dave Sharpin, tactical UAS leader for Aerovironment.

The idea began with the Marines, who were interested in integrating a tactical munition system such as the Switchblade onto armored combat vehicles, Sharpin told Defense Daily Oct. 9. But the concept could also work with the Army’s forthcoming next-generation combat vehicle, or NGCV program, he noted.

General Dynamics is developing an operating system that would pair up with Aerovironment’s software to integrate the Switchblade and Shrike into the armored reconnaissance vehicle as well as Stryker fighting vehicles, much like a smartphone’s OS allows a user to download applications from various sources, said Mike Peck, director of enterprise business development for GD Land Systems.

“Aerovironment has this capability, which we think is really unique [and] very necessary for the future fight,” he told Defense Daily. “They put it on, we integrate the hardware onto our platform, but their software and [intellectual property] is all protected.

 “All we are trying to do is give them an operating system that allows them to talk to the rest of the crew,” he added.

General Dynamics is making major investments to ensure that such a system is protected from cyber attacks while maintaining that open architecture, Peck noted. On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office issued a sobering report on the state of DoD weapons systems and their cyber defense (Defense Daily, Oct. 9).

It is also working to ensure that latency is not an issue for its information systems, and that when a warfighter observes a target from the drone, “It’s the real thing; it’s not a five-second, 10-second, 20-second delay before it arrives,” he added.

The partnership has been in development for about six months, Peck said. The team plans to demonstrate the integration this November in front of Marine and Army officials at a test site in western Maryland, he said.

The demo will include an RQ-20B Puma small UAS acting as a surrogate for the Shrike 2, which is currently in development for the Army, Sharpin said. The new drone uses rotorblades for vertical takeoff and landing, and then switches to a fixed-wing system to move forward with more efficiency, Sharpin said. It can operate with the wings on or off, he noted.

The goal is for the UAS to be able to take off from and return to the vehicle while it’s in motion, he said. “They don’t want to stop, so it’s going to have to be very automated,” he said.  

The November demonstration will be among the first Aerovironment has conducted for manned-unmanned teaming concepts, as U.S. services have begun to express more interest in the idea, Sharpin said. After the demo, the team will gauge customer interest and determine a path forward, he added.

“I think that people are starting to get their hands around what manned-unmanned teaming is, and this is a part of that,” he said. The company launched a drone off of a submarine and an unmanned underwater vehicle a couple of years ago, but this is its first entry into bonding UAVs with ground vehicles, he noted.

The idea of using unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions is certainly not new, but integrating a UAV package that can loiter and surveil and then move out to defeat a target, onto a combat vehicle, “is really an interesting connection for both” the warfighter and for the two companies, Peck said.

“It’s not a new concept, but we’ve refined the concept, the packages have gotten smaller, the ISR sensors have gotten so much more refined, and it’s easier for us to integrate the picture” with less latency than past efforts, he added.

Should it succeed, the partnership should offer soldiers and Marines increased observation and targeting capabilities on the ground, Peck said. General Dynamics is also working to integrate unmanned ground vehicles onto its combat vehicles, but the effort is proving “much more difficult” than incorporating drones, he noted.

In the future, Peck can see any of the Army or Marine Corps’ current or future vehicles outfitted with its own UAV and loitering munition capability.

“All of them have the means for this capability, we’re just trying to figure out the best way to apply it to a vehicle infrastructure with minimal disruption and give them the best opportunity to use it in a combat environment,” he said. The capability could prove to be cheaper and less destructible than a mounted mast filled with ISR sensors that can be blocked by trees or be susceptible to attacks, he added.

The Marine Corps has expressed a desire to include such an integrated capability on the armored reconnaissance vehicle, he noted. While the Army has not yet identified it as key requirement, its desire to move more quickly to field capabilities in the field could make it appealing to senior leaders, he added. “I think if you show them something that’s matured, that’s available now, …. this is the best time to do that, right now,” he said.