Warplanes: Shadow Learns To Accessorize


October 22,2008:  The U.S. Army has successfully tested a lightweight laser designator for its RQ-7 Shadow 200 UAV. Earlier this year, a lightweight satellite communications system was also approved for use in the RQ-7. This enables control via an operator back in the United States. These two devices are already used in the much heavier MQ-1 Predators (which weigh a ton and can carry 450 pounds of sensors and communications equipment.) The laser designator enables the RQ-7 to designate targets for air force aircraft carrying the more accurate laser guided bombs.

The Shadow UAVs weigh only 327 pounds each and can carry 56 pounds of equipment (usually a day or night vision camera and a transmitter). The Shadow 200 is eleven feet long and has a wingspan of 12.75 feet. It can fly as high as 19,000 feet (out of range of small arms). The Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers and can stay in the air for about six hours.

While the RQ-7 is going to be replaced by the RQ-1C in the next few years, there is an enormous demand for UAVs just now. So the RQ-7s will be worked hard (they have already flown nearly 400,000 hours), and will probably be heavily used until worn out or lost in action.

The army and air force are cooperating on developing and maintaining the Predator replacement, the slightly larger (1.4 ton), and more capable, MQ-1C Sky Warrior. The air force will be operating their Sky Warriors from the United States, using the satellite communication capability, and is trying to convince the army that this would be they way for them to go.

Keeping the operators back in the U.S. is called "reach back" and is increasingly popular with the military. It's expensive, time consuming, and often dangerous, to send people to a combat zone. Inexpensive satellite communications, and increasing use of computers, has allowed more and more support troops to be left behind. It works, even though it does prevent some face-to-face opportunities. This has not been a problem. And even when it is, the military is increasingly using video conferencing.

The army is also developing UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles), and these could be run by stateside operators as well. All this is part of the trend towards increasing automation and remote-control in warfare. Combat has increasingly become a matter of issuing the command; "send in the droids," and leave the people at home.




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