Army heads into competitive flight demos for future tactical drone

Army heads into competitive flight demos for future tactical drone

DENVER — The U.S. Army is moving its Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System competition into a flight demonstration phase with two teams, Griffon Aerospace and Textron Systems.

In the fall, the Army tapped the two companies from a group of five; now it has formally awarded contracts to both to move into the final two phases of competition.

“FTUAS provides transformational capabilities including VTOL for runway independence, On-The-Move command and control, Soldier led field level maintenance, and enables rapid capability insertions, further allowing the system to keep pace with technology,” according to an April 25 service announcement.

The service has completed a rapid prototyping program that included a preliminary and critical design review with the two competitors and will now focus on both the flight demonstration and subsequent phase, where the teams will deliver “production representative prototypes” for testing and operational demonstrations.

Soldiers will have a chance during demonstrations to test the prototypes’ capabilities, the announcement notes, including vertical takeoff and landing, reduced acoustic signature and rapid setup. The phase also includes Modular Open System Architecture verification efforts.

Later on, the prototypes will be tested in varying environmental conditions and the service will assess the drones’ ability to operate in places where the electromagnetic spectrum is challenged. Prototypes will also be evaluated for transportability.

The entire effort will culminate in a production readiness review, the statement notes.

While Army senior leaders have pushed to move quickly to field tactical UAS to replace the Shadow UAS, the program has long been in the works.

The Army began considering requirements for a replacement for its Textron-made Shadow drone in 2018; by 2019, it had narrowed the pool of competitors to a Martin UAV-Northrop Grumman team, Textron Systems, L3Harris Technologies and Arcturus UAV. Aerovironment purchased Arcturus in 2021, while Shield AI bought Martin UAV in the same year.

The service evaluated the four drone offerings over a year with operational units, culminating in a spring 2021 rodeo at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Army awarded Aerovironment an $8 million contract in August 2022 to provide the Jump 20 UAS as an interim FTUAS capability for a single brigade.

Now, the Army plans to field FTUAS to the first unit equipped in 2026, Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, director of Army aviation in the G-3/5/7, said in an April 25 speech at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual summit here.

And while the Army announced earlier this year it officially plans to quickly retire Shadow, “there’s no amount of money that will accelerate [FTUAS] left,” Rugen said, referring to a faster fielding schedule.

“What we in the building are doing is putting more units into the fielding process, and that’s our version of acceleration,” Rugen added, while emphasizing that with the Shadow replacement “the demand is going to be off the charts … the demand by divisions to have that tactical UAS capability in their formations at squadron echelon.”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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