Aerovironment backpackable air vehicle to get longer endurance, new batteries, infrared sensor and a zoom camera

The US Marine Corps is moving ahead with plans for a comprehensive, four-stage block upgrade of the Dragon Eye unmanned air vehicle following its limited introduction into surveillance operations in Iraq.

The baseline production version of the Aerovironment-built back-packable UAV reached initial operational capability last May, providing "over-the-hill" reconnaissance and surveillance imagery to tactical marine units. Around 14 systems, each comprising three UAVs and a ground-control laptop computer, have been delivered and a total of 35 systems are due in service by year-end, says USMC Dragon Eye programme manager Don Bruce.

The five-year plan calls for procurement of 342 systems, or 1,026 UAVs. "We had about 300 flights in its first month of fielding. The commanders like it, I know that because I can't supply enough batteries," says Bruce. The UAVs are being used in urban environments to "see what's happening before they send out a patrol and put a marine in harm's way", he says. The system, which has interchangeable nose assemblies carrying either colour daylight electro-optical or low-light monochrome cameras, is doing "much better from a maintenance perspective". Around "84% are flying right now, which is pretty good considering the way they're being used", he says.

Block 1 improvements scheduled for development by Aerovironment and the Marine Corps' Warfighting Laboratory in fiscal year 2004-5 include tests of a larger-span X-63 variant with double the 45min endurance of the current UAV. The larger version will have a wing span of 1.6m (5.2ft), versus the 1.14m of the in-service UAV, and will have more-efficient propellers and electric motors. Improved batteries are also planned as part of an "effort that is ongoing to increase flight time to 100-plus minutes", says Bruce.

To counter early in-service weaknesses such as poor video images and inadequate night-time performance, the upgrade will also include an infrared (IR) sensor, integrated communications system (ICS) and a zoom camera capability. Several IR systems will be tested, including sensors developed by BAE Systems, DRS Nytech, FLIR Systems, Irvine Sensors and Raytheon. All are being tested for "capability and cost" says Bruce, who adds that the L-3 Communications-developed ICS will enable the Dragon Eye to share imagery with other tactical UAVs.

Longer term, Bruce says Block 2 "and beyond" will investigate areas such as chemical, biological, acoustic, multi-spectral and digital sensors as well as further advances in propulsion/battery, guidance and digital connectivity technology.



Source: Flight International