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PUMA AE Poised for Army Family of Small UAS Opportunity

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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. 

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. 

With 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: 

(1) Mounted 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.  

(3) Range/Endurance -- 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.

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