Warplanes: AWOL UAV Syndrome

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February 28, 2017: A U.S. Army unit in Colorado lost one of its RQ-7B Shadow 200 UAVs on January 31s when the ground controller could no longer communicate with the UAV. The army was using data from local ground radar data and the ground controller equipment to try and figure out where the UAV went but that indicated a huge search area in rural Colorado. Endurance of the RQ-7 is only about nine hours and the army was still trying to find out where the RQ-7 was (there were no reports of it) when a hiker came across it about a thousand kilometers away in some remote mountains. There was no fire, so the RQ-7 apparently had kept going until it ran out of fuel. The investigation continues. What this highlights is the continuing problems with UAV flight control software, especially for when a UAV losses contact with its ground controller. There are various solutions to this and the most common one is the “go home” response. For this the flight software automatically carries out a return to base when contact with the ground controller is lost. The exact cause of this RQ-7B loss won’t be known for months because of the accident investigation process that examines just about every possibility.

The RQ-7B has been one of the most heavily used “medium UAV” Each 200 kg (440 pound) RQ-7BV2 Shadow 200 UAV costs over $2,000,000 and over 500 have been manufactured since 1990. A day camera and night vision camera is carried as well as accessories like laser designators. Able to fly as high as 4,900 meters (15,000 feet), the Shadow can 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 can carry 25.5 kg (56 pounds) of equipment, and is 3.5 meters (11 feet long) and has a wingspan of 4.1 meters (12.75 feet). The Shadow ground controller has a range of about 50 kilometers. The U.S. Army has had great success with the Shadow 200, which is what caught the attention of foreign customers and led to several export sales.

Shadows are deployed as platoons; each containing four UAVs, a truck mounted hydraulic launcher, ground control, support gear and at least six vehicles. Each platoon has about $30 million of equipment that is operated by 22 troops. Typically, each combat brigade has one Shadow UAV platoon. The army has developed a lightweight laser designator for the Shadow 200. This enables the UAV to carry and fire small missiles.

The RQ-7 was supposed to be replaced by a Predator class replacement the 1.4 ton MQ-1C Sky Warrior. But because of continued enormous demand for UAVs and budget cuts there have been fewer MQ-1Cs available and the RQ-7 still gets the job done. RQ-7s in service are being worked hard (they have already flown about a million hours) and will probably be heavily used until worn out or lost in action. But foreign demand for Shadow 200 is also keeping the aircraft in production.

 


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