The U.S. Army recently announced another upgrade for its fleet of 400 RQ-7B Shadow 200 UAVs. This comes after the 2014 arrival of the first major new version (in a while) of the RQ-7B. The Bv2 model had a lot of improvements and the army has, by early 2016, only upgraded about half of its existing RQ-7Bs to the v2 standard. Among the improvements is the use of the same communications system (TCDL) used in the larger MQ-1C. TCDL is encrypted, has higher throughput, is more reliable and allows data to be shared with other aircraft or ground troops using the latest comm and network gear. The v2 wings are 42 percent larger helping to increase endurance to nine hours. It’s now easier to remove and install different (or just malfunctioning) sensor packages. The sensor packages now come with a laser designator.
Version 3, called Shadow M2 was already in development back then and is now well advanced. The M2 will have longer endurance (nine hours), and be 47 percent heavier (at 327 kg) and include a more powerful and reliable engine as well as the ability to use weapons. Payload will increase by 45 kg (100 pounds) so it will be able to carry more weapons. Both the V2 and M2 versions can carry the British FFLMM missile. This is the LMM guided missile without the rocket motor. That means FFLMM weighs only six kg (13 pounds) and is 700mm (27.5 inches) long. FFLMM has larger fins for guidance and lift so that from a high altitude FFLMM has a range of at least two kilometers. FFLMM also has GPS and INS (inertial) guidance in addition to laser. This FFLMM is a lightweight smart bomb also called “Fury.” A RQ-7BV2 can carry two of these Fury bombs while the M2 can carry at least four.
The U.S. Army RQ-7Bs have flown over a million hours since they were introduced in 2002, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Army normally assigns an RQ-7B platoon to each combat brigade. Priority is given to brigades overseas, who sometimes get more than one platoon if in combat. Each of these platoons has 22 troops and operates four UAVs, plus the ground control equipment. Each 222 kg (467 pound) RQ-7B costs $500,000 the current version can stay in the air six hours per sortie. A day camera and night vision camera is carried on each aircraft. Able to fly as high as 4,800 meters (15,000 feet) or more, the Shadow can thus 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 UAV can carry 25.5 kg (56 pounds) of equipment, is 3.6 meters (eleven feet) long and has a wingspan of 4.1 meters (12.75 feet). The Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers. The army has had great success with the RQ-7B, its first large UAV. There were plans to replace the RQ-7B with the MQ-1C Gray Eagle by the end of the decade. But budget cuts reduced the number of MQ-1Cs the army could afford. Meanwhile the RQ-7B had a lot of fans in the army so the fleet is going to be maintained at about 400 for a while.