The US Army is eyeing a new, runway-independent tactical UAS with additional sensors to augment the Textron Systems RQ-7B Shadow mission, according to the service’s project manager for UAS.

The army recently sent a draft initial capabilities document to the Pentagon, which will refine capabilities for the future UAS, says Col Courtney Cote. The current iteration of the Shadow, which the army has operated since 2015, provides reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition for the service’s Brigade Combat Teams. The UAS also operates with the Boeing AH-64 Apache gunship in the scout role.

The new system would be fielded in the 2020s, but Cote could not elaborate more on a timeline or whether the UAS would be larger than the 20ft-long, 209kg, tier 3 Shadow. The improved capabilities should include increased survivability, reliability, endurance and runway independence, he says. The army could also examine whether the Brigade Combat Teams should employ a strike UAS rather than a pure ISR mission with the Shadow.

“Ultimately, it would fulfill the reconnaissance gap in total by increased ability to carry sensors,” Core says.

While the army mulls over a clean sheet tactical UAS, the service is also gearing up for a re-engine competition for the Shadow. Over the years, added mission equipment has dragged down the performance of the piston-engined Shadow. The army would have difficulty adding more sensors to the Shadow to increase its ISR capability, when the Shadow has already grown from a gross takeoff weight of approximately 127kg to 209kg. Between fiscal year 2015 and 2019, the army plans to develop and field the Block III engine, according to the service.

“Although it’s delivering, that first version of [the Shadow]... was almost half the weight that we’re [at] right now,” Cote says. “The same engine flying almost twice the weight."

"The physics of flight are pretty defined," he adds. "If you’re going to put a bigger engine, are you going put a bigger engine on the same platform? “

Cote emphasises that the new UAS would not replace the Shadow, but operate a tactical mission at the brigade level and below.

“The analysis will bear out what type of unmanned platform does the army need, based on what they determined needs to be delivered at the tactical level,” Cote says. “Then that platform will start to take shape.”

Meanwhile, the army also wants a short-range micro unmanned aerial system, which has not yet been defined but will be smaller than the service’s AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma, Cote says. The service could release a request for proposals by fiscal year 2018, though that will be subject to fiscal priorities, he adds.