Washington: The Army is looking hard at a new version of its Shadow aerial drone that can fly much longer and carry more.
The Shadow M2, being built by Textron Systems, features a fuselage that is five times bigger than the current version.
That bigger fuselage will allow the drone to carry twice as much surveillance equipment internally, compared to the Shadow in the field now, Vance King, the company’s vice president for unmanned systems, told me yesterday.
Thanks to the larger fuselage, the Army will be able to hang weapons and other equipment underneath the drone’s wings, giving commanders a wider range of options on what the drone can be used for. Currently, the Army has not weaponized the Shadow drone.
The M2′s new engine will also allow the new drone fly up to 20 hours in a single flight, King said. The current Shadow can only fly a maximum of eight to 10 hours. he added.
But all this added capability does come at a cost, and with the Army and the rest of the Pentagon preparing for tough budget times ahead, the question is, can the service afford to buy the M2.
The Army’s aviation office likely won’t request money for the M2 in its yet-to-be released budget plan for next fiscal year, even though many consider unmanned aircraft one of the areas that will likely survive the coming budget cuts
But service officials could actually end up saving money by buying the M2, the Textron program chief claimed. The Army would not have to buy a slate of brand new aerial drones under the M2 program. Service engineers can just switch out the fuselages and engines on the current Shadows and replace them with the larger versions of those systems featured on the M2.
Field commanders would still be able to use the same ground control and communications systems they are using for the Shadow on the M2.
The Army is focusing on expanding its unmanned fleet, since those aircraft have been successful in Iraq and Afghanistan and are theoretically cheaper to fly and maintain than manned planes or helicopters.
But the Army has not been able to document that is has saved any money by flying unmanned aircraft, service officials claim.
And since cost will be the main factor in determining what the Army ends up buying next fiscal year and beyond, it may be awhile before American soldiers can look up in the sky and see the M2 buzzing above them.