As DSJ reported in January, the Army is currently engaged in a significant "proof-of-principle" demonstration
in Afghanistan to firm up its requirements for a "Family of Small UAS" Program of Record. This demonstration
has an Army Brigade evaluating the effectiveness of AV's RQ-11B
RAVEN system (a current program Program of Record focused on company-level operations) and with two other small UAS systems
– the PUMA-All Environment (AE) air vehicle (supporting battalion-level operations) and the WASP (supporting platoon
reconnaissance) – that are not formal Programs of Record.
AV's RQ-11B RAVEN already a Program of Record and essentially a shoo-in to be part of the Family of Small UAS, what do we
know about AV's larger, battalion-level asset, the PUMA AE and how it's holding up? DSJ talked to officials
within the Army's Program Manager UAS and at prime contractor AV for insight. Here's what we learned:
As we noted, PM UAS and the SUAS Product
Office (PdO) seek to establish a Program of Record for Family of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems or “Rucksack Portable”
systems – perhaps including the RAVEN, PUMA AE, and WASP, but perhaps not -- and the path to a program is taking two
parallel tracks: an ongoing Demonstration and Evaluation in Afghanistan; and the staffing of requisite requirements documents.
The Family of
Systems demonstration is the first excursion for the SUAS PdO into an expanded inventory of small UAS. The
Army’s 1/101 Brigade Combat Team (BCT) – currently deployed to Afghanistan -- is the first to receive the FoS
equipment and is now operating and evaluating more than dozen WASP, RAVEN, and PUMA AE systems.
As of today, the 1/101
BCT is well more than half way through a one-year demonstration and evaluation period of the systems, all supported by a common
ground station. The objective of the trial is to get unambiguous operator feedback on what the warfighter
needs in these systems prior to firming the program.
or Dismounted Operations -- The PUMA AE is a modular system that can be operated from a Forward Operating Base
or can travel forward with troops depending on the mission type.
(2) Payload -- The
PUMA AE is equiped with a day- and night-capable, waterproof
EO/IR sensor on a lightweight gimbaled turret that
provides image tracking, image stabilization and high-image quality. While AV tells DSJ both that additional payloads have
been developed and are less commonly used and the company is always working on improvements to the basic EO/IR capability
of Puma, neither PM UAS nor AV would confirm speculation that the PUMA's current payload is FLIR Systems’ PHOTON.
-- The PUMA AE has a communications range of 15 km and flight endurance of 2 hours. To meet the requirements outlined
for the Army's Family of SUAS -- 2.5 hours threshold, 4.0 hours objective -- this endurance will need to be increased and
fuel cells provide one option. AV tells DSJ that earlier
versions of the PUMA have been flown for longer than 9 hours using
a hybrid fuel cell propulsion system.
(4) Operational Experience -- PM UAS suggests to DSJ that the PUMA AE is having some trouble operating in
the updrafts characteristic of operating in the mountains of
Afghanistan and the Army has, in fact, lost one air vehicle to date. AV declined to disclose the PUMA AE's operational
parameters or to outline the company's ongoing efforts to address operational/performance concerns. (5) One Ground Control Station per Air Vehicle -- AV notes that while technically, several PUMAs can be operated simultaneously from a single GCS, operationally,
procedure and practice require one GCS per AV.
(6) Leveraging Commonality -- While the PUMA AE has not yet been tapped as part of the Army's Family
of Small UAS, AV tells DSJ that advantages would accrue to the Army
if the PUMA AE is ultimately identified to work in combination with RAVEN. Among them, common
system training and support functions, common and interoperable ground control system, a track record of high operational availability and reliability.
As to AV's outlook for the future, the company is brimming with confidence. AV notes that while
they expect very stout competition in a market space that they have made their own, they are quick to note
that each of the four competitions for DoD programs of record have been extremely competitive, with AV having won each (USMC Dragon Eye – 2003, US Army SUAS – 2005, USAF BATMAV – 2006, USSOCOM AECV –2008) in the end.