U.S. Army expanding, upgrading Gray Eagle fleet

WASHINGTON (Army News Ser­vice, June 28, 2012) — The Army is upgrad­ing its fleet of MQ-1C Gray Eagle Unmanned Air­craft Sys­tems while also advanc­ing plans to equip each 10–15,000 Sol­dier divi­sion with its recon­nais­sance, sur­veil­lance, tar­get­ing and acqui­si­tion capa­bil­i­ties, offi­cials said.

An MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned air­craft makes its way down an air­field on Camp Taji, Iraq, before a sur­veil­lance mis­sion in the Bagh­dad area, in this undat­ed file pho­to. The Army plans upgrade and buy 29 more of the game-chang­ers.
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“The feed­back we’ve got­ten from our warfight­ers down range is that this sys­tem is a game chang­er. It is real­ly enhanc­ing our abil­i­ty,” said Maj. Gen. Tim Cros­by, with Pro­gram Exec­u­tive Offi­cer — Avi­a­tion. “Sol­diers have been able to take this great tech­nol­o­gy and put it into the war quick­ly with great results.”

At a recent Defense Acqui­si­tion Board, Pen­ta­gon offi­cials approved an Army plan to acquire 29 more air­craft as part of a longer term plan to equip each divi­sion with a Gray Eagle com­pa­ny con­sist­ing of a full-spec­trum Com­bat Avi­a­tion Brigade of 12 air­craft, Cros­by explained.

“The world will con­tin­ue to be a dan­ger­ous place. Hav­ing that organ­ic recon­nais­sance, sur­veil­lance, and tar­get acqui­si­tion, or RSTA, capa­bil­i­ty at the divi­sion lev­el will be a real asset,” said Rich Kret­zschmar, Unmanned Air­craft Sys­tems, or UAS, deputy project man­ag­er.

The Gray Eagle is a Hell­fire mis­sile-equipped, 3,600-pound UAS with a 56-foot wingspan and the abil­i­ty to fly and send back images and sen­sor data for near­ly 24 hours at alti­tudes up to 25,000 feet. Two Quick Reac­tion Capa­bil­i­ties units, each con­sist­ing of four air­craft, ground con­trol sta­tions and sup­port­ing equip­ment, are cur­rent­ly deployed in Afghanistan.

Addi­tion­al­ly, a Gray Eagle com­pa­ny of 12 air­craft is serv­ing in Afghanistan. Over­all, the Gray Eagle has flown more than 24,000 com­bat hours and main­tained an oper­a­tional avail­abil­i­ty at about 85 per­cent, said Col. Tim Bax­ter, UAS project man­ag­er.

The Gray Eagle “quick reac­tion capa­bil­i­ty,” or QRCs, rep­re­sents an effort to send emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy to the­ater as a way to refine require­ments for an acqui­si­tion pro­gram, upgrade the sen­sors and soft­ware and pro­vide Sol­diers the bat­tle­field advan­tage of uti­liz­ing its tech­nol­o­gy, all while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pre­serv­ing the Mile­stones, checks, bal­ances and pro­ce­dures cen­tral to a for­mal Pro­gram of Record pro­cure­ment effort, offi­cials explained.

“This is a con­tin­gency based pro­gram. We’ve been putting kits in the field while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in the back­ground devel­op­ing the sys­tem as part of a Pro­gram of Record. This has been an iter­a­tive process,” said Bax­ter. “We added addi­tion­al avion­ics and we added a [com­mu­ni­ca­tions] relay capa­bil­i­ty. We have a laun­dry list of 15 to 25 things that we have added over the last three or four years. Right now in the­ater, Gray Eagles are fly­ing 70 to 90 hours a day.”

Part of the ratio­nale for the QRC is to har­ness key input and feed­back from Sol­diers using the sys­tem as a way to improve the air­craft, and in some instances, help add new capa­bil­i­ty. Gray Eagles QRCs have been oper­at­ing in the­ater since 2009, accord­ing to Cros­by and Bax­ter.

“This pro­gram has been such a suc­cess because this is one of those non-tra­di­tion­al acqui­si­tion pro­grams. We have been grow­ing this capa­bil­i­ty in the hands of Sol­diers since its incep­tion. We start­ed out with some pro­to­types and we put some out there in the the­ater and start­ed learn­ing,” not­ed Cros­by. “We’ve con­tin­ued to learn. We get feed­back from the Sol­diers as we go and the sys­tem has done so well that we keep adding stuff. We have been focused on giv­ing warfight­er capa­bil­i­ty.”

Along these lines, fur­ther planned upgrades to the Gray Eagle sys­tem involve the addi­tion of a Syn­thet­ic Aper­ture Radar, or SAR, Ground Mov­ing Tar­get Indi­ca­tor, known as GMTI, sen­sor and an Air Data Relay, or ADR, capa­bil­i­ty. Kret­zschmar explained that ADR capa­bil­i­ty gives Sol­diers and UAS oper­a­tors the abil­i­ty to pass infor­ma­tion from one air vehi­cle to anoth­er from a ground-con­trol sta­tion.

“If you don’t have a line-of-sight con­nec­tion and you want to extend your range, Air Data-Relay gives you that abil­i­ty,” said Kret­zschmar.

Air Data Relay is expect­ed to prove extreme­ly use­ful in the moun­tain­ous regions of Afghanistan, where obtain­ing line-of-sight con­nec­tions can prove to be more dif­fi­cult, he added.

“If you are oper­at­ing in an envi­ron­ment where satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions is not avail­able, this allows you to move your data from bird to bird with­out hav­ing to rely on satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” Bax­ter said.

Plans to improve Gray Eagle capa­bil­i­ty are the lat­est in a series of upgrades to the sys­tem tak­ing place over the last sev­er­al years, Cros­by said. Each time the sen­sors are upgrad­ed, new soft­ware is inte­grat­ed into the sys­tem as well.

“When we first put this sys­tem in the­ater, it was just a Gray Eagle with an EO/IR, or Elec­tro-Opti­cal/In­frared, sen­sor. Then we put mis­siles on it. Now we are going to put SAR GMTI on it and we are going to put Air Data Relay on it. These are com­bat capa­bil­i­ties that our warfight­ers are call­ing for,” Cros­by said.

The Gray Eagle acqui­si­tion pro­gram is prepar­ing for a for­mal Ini­tial Oper­a­tional Test and Eval­u­a­tion, also known as IOT&E, lat­er this sum­mer. Dur­ing the IOT&E, it will for­mal­ly demon­strate its capa­bil­i­ties while work­ing in tan­dem with the Army’s Block III Apache attack heli­copter.

The Gray Eagle is capa­ble of what is called Lev­el IV Manned-Unmanned Team­ing, a tech­no­log­i­cal advance in which heli­copter pilots not only have the abil­i­ty to view live feeds from a near­by UAS in real time, but also have the abil­i­ty to fly the UAS and con­trol the sen­sor pay­load.

U.S. Army