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Army begins competitive flying trials for next-generation tactical drones

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In March 2021, soldiers visit Textron’s Aerosonde headquarters during the Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System rodeo at Fort Benning, Georgia. The competition to manufacture the drone for the Army in April 2024 saw Textron and Griffon Aerospace chosen to move forward. The U.S. Army provided this image.

The following was stated in a service announcement dated April 25: “FTUAS provides transformational capabilities, including soldier-led field-level maintenance, on-the-Move command and control, and VTOL for runway independence, further allowing the system to keep pace with technology.”

The service will now focus on the next phase, in which the teams deliver “production representative prototypes” for operational demonstrations and testing, in addition to the flight demonstration. The service has concluded a fast prototyping program that involved a preliminary and crucial design review with both rivals.

The statement claims that soldiers will be able to test the prototypes’ low noise signature, quick setup, vertical takeoff and landing, and other features. This phase also includes the Modular Open System Architecture verification work.

The service will evaluate the drones’ operational capabilities in areas where the electromagnetic spectrum is vulnerable when the prototypes are put to the test in a variety of environmental settings later on. Transportability will also be assessed for prototypes.

The statement states that an assessment of production readiness will be the culmination of the entire endeavor.

Although the program has been in the works for a while, Army senior authorities have pushed for a swift deployment of tactical UAS to replace the Shadow UAS.

The Army began examining the requirement for a replacement for Textron’s Shadow drone in 2018. By 2019, the Army had reduced the number of potential candidates to four: Textron Systems, L3Harris Technologies, Martin UAV-Northrop Grumman, and Arcturus UAV. In 2021, Shield AI purchased Martin UAV, and Aerovironment purchased Arcturus.

The service conducted a year-long evaluation of the four drone solutions with operational units, with the end result being a spring 2021 rodeo at Fort Benning, Georgia. In August 2022, the Army granted Aerovironment a $8 million contract to supply the Jump 20 UAS to one brigade as a temporary Forward UAS capability.

Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, head of Army aviation in the G-3/5/7, announced the Army’s intention to field FTUAS to the first equipped unit in 2026 during a speech on April 25 at the annual summit of the Army Aviation Association of America.

Despite the Army’s formal announcement earlier this year that it intends to soon retire Shadow, Rugen stated that “no amount of money will accelerate [FTUAS] left,” alluding to a quicker fielding schedule.

Rugen continued, “What we’re doing in the building is adding more units to the fielding process, which is our version of acceleration,” but emphasized that “the demand is going to be off the charts… the demand by divisions to have that tactical UAS capability in their formations at squadron echelon” with the introduction of the Shadow replacement.

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