The U.S. Army recently received its first major new version (in a while) of its oldest UAV, the RQ-7B Shadow. The Bv2 model has a lot of improvements and the army is in the process of upgrading all 400 of its existing RQ-7Bs to the v2 standard. Among the improvements is the use of the same communications system (TCDL) used in the larger MQ-1C. TCDL is encrypted, has higher throughput, is more reliable and allows data to be shared with other aircraft or ground troops using the latest comm and network gear. The v2 wings are 42 percent larger helping to increase endurance to nine hours. It’s now easier to remove and install different (or just malfunctioning) sensor packages. The sensor packages now come with a laser designator.
Version 3 is already in development, and this one will include a more powerful and reliable engine as well as the ability to use weapons. For this the mini-smart bomb used will be the British FFLMM. This is the LMM guided missile without the rocket motor. That means FFLMM weighs only six kg (13 pounds) and is 700mm (27.5 inches) long. FFLMM has larger fins for guidance and lift so that from a high altitude FFLMM has a range of at least two kilometers. FFLMM also has GPS and INS (inertial) guidance in addition to laser. This FFLMM can be used as a lightweight smart bomb. A U.S. defense firm is marketing FFLMM as “Fury.” A RQ-7B can carry two of these Fury bombs.
The U.S. Army RQ-7Bs have flown about a million hours since they were introduced in 2002, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Army normally assigns an RQ-7B platoon to each combat brigade. Priority is given to brigades overseas, who sometimes get more than one platoon if in combat. Each of these platoons has 22 troops and operates four UAVs, plus the ground control equipment. Each 159 kg (350 pound) RQ-7B costs $500,000 the current version can stay in the air six hours per sortie. A day camera and night vision camera is carried on each aircraft. Able to fly as high as 4,800 meters (15,000 feet) or more, the Shadow can thus go into hostile territory and stay high enough (over 3,200 meters/10,000 feet) to be safe from hostile rifle and machine-gun fire. The Shadow UAV can carry 25.5 kg (56 pounds) of equipment, is 3.6 meters (eleven feet) long and has a wingspan of 4.1 meters (12.75 feet). The Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers. The army has had great success with the RQ-7B. There were plans to replace the RQ-7B with the MQ-1C by the end of the decade. But budget cuts reduced the number of MQ-1Cs the army could afford. Meanwhile the RQ-7B had a lot of fans in the army so the fleet is going to be maintained at about 400 for a while.