Drone That Could Replace Army's RQ-7 Shadow Undergoes Testing at Yuma

Soldie prepare the Textron Aerosonde HQ for its assessment.
Soldiers from the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord prepare the Textron Aerosonde HQ for its assessment. (U.S. Army)

As the Army assesses competitors to replace its reliable-but-noisy RQ-7 Shadow reconnaissance drone, it's putting some through their paces at the sprawling Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

Textron's Aerosonde HQ, a catapult-launched and net-recovered unmanned aerial system that is one of four vying to replace shadow, has been undergoing recent testing at Yuma, according to an Aug. 19 Army release.

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"We test here whenever we have changes to the system," Kyle Petesch, Aerosonde site lead, said in a statement. "The [Yuma] personnel are very attentive to what we ask for and easy to work with."

The Army's Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System effort aims to select a new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone, to be used by brigade combat teams to enhance situational awareness and identify threats. Other candidates include the V-Bat vertical takeoff UAS offered by Martin UAV and Northrop Grumman; the Arcturus JUMP-20 UAV; and the FVR-90 from L-3 Harris. Defense News reported in April that the formal competition kicked off with a soldier-operated test of the Arcturus UAV at Fort Riley, Kansas.

This month's Army release did not clarify what kind of testing the Aerosonde HQ underwent in recent evaluations at Yuma.

"Aerosonde has been testing here for more than 12 years," Matthew O'Donald, a test officer, added. "It's a well-proven machine, and there have been numerous upgrades over the years."

Officials did note that the system is relatively quiet, a key selling point. Designed for expeditionary land- and sea-based operations, it's equipped for multi-intelligence payloads in a single 15-hour flight and portable and boasts outstanding optics at high altitudes, Textron Systems states on its website.

"Our end user--a platoon out in the field--doesn't want their targets to know they're being watched," James Ruthven, Aerosonde's senior engineering support manager, added. "Our engine and aircraft has to be quiet, so coming here affords us the opportunity to put people out in the desert and do acoustic measurements. We can tailor how we operate in the real world based on the findings we have here."

With more than 500 permanent radio frequencies, and several thousand temporary ones in a given month, Yuma is the best place to test unmanned aerial systems and associated sensors, the release states.

"This is the easiest place for us to operate, and we get the most complete and comprehensive coverage in support of what we're doing," said Ruthven. "The heat and density altitudes that we find in this local environment are very similar to a lot of the places we're operating in overseas."

Army officials have said they plan to test the four candidate systems throughout fiscal 2020, with soldier evaluations at major bases throughout the country and at the Army’s National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center. Following a final report, officials want to select a Shadow replacement in 2021.

-- Bing Xiao can be reached at bingxiao2020@u.northwestern.edu.

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