Sophisticated unmanned aircraft get big military bucks

The Army has awarded General Atomics an $18.6 million contract to continue developing an extended range/multi-purpose unmanned aerial vehicle.  The contract is but one of the extended range unmanned aircraft military planners are looking at for the next few years.  In addition, there is more than $500 million for unmanned aircraft systems in the fiscal 2008 war supplemental, which Congress has yet to act on, according to Aviation Week

First, the General Atomics contract is for the aircraft called the Sky Warrior.  The Sky Warrior is built upon the company’s highly successful Predator and I-GNAT ER airplanes. The aircraft, the first of which flew last year,  will perform long-endurance – over 40 hours aloft, surveillance, communications relay, and weapons delivery missions with double the weapons capacity of the Predator.

The Predator can stay up for over 30 hours, the company said. Sky Warrior can fly above 29,000 feet on jet or diesel fuel with increased horsepower and significantly improved fuel efficiency, General Atomics said. The aircraft is equipped with triple redundant avionics and  redundant flight controls/surfaces to ensure it can stay aloft in the event of a failure of one system.   

DARPA said recently that unmanned aircraft have fundamentally changed air warfare and it continues to develop bigger, better UAVs.  For example, on its plate is an aircraft known as Vulture. The objective of the Vulture program is to develop an aircraft capable of remaining on-station uninterrupted for over five years to perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communication missions, DARPA said.  The technology challenges include development of energy management and reliability technologies capable of allowing the aircraft to operate continuously for five years. 

Vulture, in effect, will be a persistent pseudo-satellite capability, in an aircraft package, DARPA said. 

The military’s thirst for unmanned aircraft that can watch, hunt and sometimes kill insurgents has been unquenchable. The US Air Force in January gave the go-ahead for full production of the one pound, 29-inch WASP III unmanned aircraft designed to be used for special battlefield operations such as targeting and tracking.  

The Aerovironment Wasp III carries interchangeable targeting payload modules, including an infrared camera, along with two integrated color cameras that transmit streaming video directly to the hand-held ground controller for display on an integrated monitor. It has been procured under the Air Force’s Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle (BATMAV) program.  

BATMAV systems are expected to let military personnel see over hills and beyond their line of sight in real time and in low light. The unmanned aircraft are highly portable, durable and can be launched by one person. The BATMAV aircraft are expected to fly at an altitude of 500 feet, at about 40MPH and staying aloft for up to 90 minutes at a time. 

In November 2007 the U.S. Marine Corps awarded AV a $19.3 million contract for Wasp III MAV systems under the Air Force BATMAV Contract. The Marines plan to deploy Wasp at the Platoon level and use it as a complement to their Raven unmanned aircraft, which they currently deploy at the company and battalion levels.   

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