NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, MARYLAND: Most drones land the same way manned airplanes do, on a runway. But what if you don’t have a runway? Well, with an unmanned aerial vehicle called the RQ-21, Marines can string up a cable and snag the drone out of the sky.
The military and unmanned aerial vehicle maker Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, pioneered the “skyhook” technique with a small drone called Scan Eagle that has seen wide service in Afghanistan and Iraq. But now they’re scaling that technology up with the larger and more capable Insitu Integrator, being developed for the Marines and Navy under the designation RQ-21A. Scan Eagle weighs 44 pounds, about as much as the average four-year-old boy; Integrator weighs 135 lbs, as much as a 14-year-old. That 300 percent increase in weight is literally a stretch for the crane-and-cable mechanism that snatches the drone out of the air in mid-flight.
The process is “pretty violent,” said Marine Corps Master Sergeant Richard Seeley, who’s flown drones on six tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and who is now showing off the system to reporters here at the Navy’s Patuxent River test center. The drone hits the cable, slides along it for a fraction of a second until a hook on the wingtip catches, and automatically cuts its engine, but it still swings about wildly, causing the skyhook crane to buck, until it finally settles to a full stop. (See the video starting at 2:15). But, Seeley said, the Integrator design is modular, so if the drone is damaged, the operators can just snap out the damaged wing and snap in a new one.
Why go through all this trouble? Because the military and, especially, the Marines are looking beyond Afghanistan to a world of rapid deployments to trouble spots where there may be no airfields available. Over the decade since 9/11, the US had plenty of time to build up bases in Iraq and Afghanistan – although smaller outposts, especially in Afghanistan’s mountainous east, often have no room inside the perimeter for a landing strip. After US forces withdraw (mostly) from Afghanistan in 2014, commanders expect to focus on contingency missions to countries where the US may not only have no established presence but may have to fight its way in against sophisticated opposition. So the Marine Corps in particular is looking to return to its “expeditionary” roots, operating off ships and from ad hoc beachheads ashore rather than from fixed bases.
That’s the attraction of the RQ-21, which can be launched – using a kind of catapult – and recovered – using the skyhook – from a small clearing or even off the side of a ship. Scan Eagle’s already been flown off Navy DDG-51 destroyers, but for RQ-21A the plan is to operate it off the amphibious warfare ships that carry Marines, primarily the smaller San Antonio-class LPDs. On land, operating RQ-21A takes nine Marines and four Humvees – two to haul supply trailers, one to tow the launcher, and another to tow the skyhook. That’s far less equipment than required for the Corps’s current standard drone, the RQ-7 Shadow.
While the smaller Scan Eagle was an ad hoc improvisation for Afghanistan and Iraq, operated by contractors on service contracts, the RQ-21A will be a full-fledged “program of record” issuing drones directly to Marine Corps drone squadrons (called VMUs), said Marine Col. James Rector, who manages RQ-21A and other small UAV programs for both the Marine Corps and the Navy. Ultimately, each Marine Expeditionary Unit will have its own RQ-21A-equipped VMU squadron with 81 Marines and nine drones. In the current five-year budget projection, the Pentagon plans to field 32 RQ-21As for the Marines and another four for the Navy. Right now, they’re strictly scout platforms, but in the long run, the RQ-21 might carry weapons.