Puma AE: An “All Environment” Mini-UAVJan 16, 2013 18:45 UTC by Defense Industry Daily staff
The mini-UAV market may lack the high individual price tags of vehicles like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, or the battlefield strike impact of an MQ-9 Reaper, but it does have 2 advantages. One is less concern about “deconfliction” with manned aircraft, as described in “Field Report on Raven, Shadow UAVs From the 101st.” Mini-UAVs usually fly below 1,000 feet, and a styrofoam-like body with a 5 foot wingspan is much less of a collision threat than larger and more solidly-built platforms like the man-sized RQ-7 Shadow, or the Cessna-sized MQ-1 Predator.
The other advantage is mini-UAVs’ suitability for special operations troops, who are being employed in numbers on the front lines around the world. “Raven UAVs Winning Gold in Afghanistan’s ‘Commando Olympics’” details the global scale of this interest – and in July 2008, a $200 million US SOCOM contract for a breakthrough mini-UAV underscored it again. Now AeroVironment’s S2AS/ RQ-20A Puma AE is moving beyond Special Operations, and into the regular force.
Mini-UAVs: Evolution & Advantages
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that can perform battlefield missions seem like a recent phenomenon, but countries like Israel and Canada have been building and using them for 3 decades now. Israel translated its early lead into a globally competitive UAV industry; Canada has not, as the early lead generated by projects like the CL-227 Sentinel/”flying peanut” withered on the vine.
As American forces began to adopt UAVs more widely, however, opportunities were created for domestic manufacturers to establish volume production, and become global leaders. The American penchant for technology, and the pressure of battlefield requirements, began to create another opportunity: greater UAV diversity. At the high-end, UAVs moved from brigade, fleet group, and division surveillance roles, and began to replace high-end national reconnaissance assets (vid. RQ-4 Global Hawk). At the brigade and division levels, armed UAVs began to give these devices important strike roles in counterinsurgency scenarios (vid. MQ-1/9 Predator family).
The next level down are tactical UAVs like Textron AAI’s RQ-7 Shadow, IAI’s Searcher II, Elbit’s Skylark II, or the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle. They require additional support equipment for launch/recovery, and have the ability to cover “this sector” or even “this city”.
At the same time, the march of technology had made another new development possible: large numbers of “mini-UAVs” small enough for soldiers to carry, with electronic sensors that could capture good quality imagery, and then relay it to troops over expanding electronic networks.
The mini-UAV market focuses on flying devices that can be carried, launched, and recovered by soldiers. They generally have ranges up to 20 km, and an endurance of 1-3 hours in the air. These UAVs aren’t designed to do depth reconnaissance, but to look over the next hill, watch a neighborhood in a city before troops enter it, patrol a base’s outer perimeter, etc.
Even smaller micro-UAVs are in development, and focus more tightly on “this building” or “this engagement”.
The late Dr. McReady’s Aerovironment, Inc. has a history of aerial innovation, from human and solar-powered flight to early entries that helped define the mini-UAV market. Their main competition is Israel’s Elbit Systems (esp. the popular Skylark I), while their most advanced competitor may be Prioria’s Maveric, selected by the Canadian armed forces. As Aerovironment’s history shows, however, their own firm’s new designs are their most frequent competitors:
1990: Aerovironment delivers the first privately-developed FQM-151 Pointer hand-launched UAVs, for “extended evaluation” by the US military and Special Operations communities. Some are used in Iraq and Kuwait during Desert Storm in 1991.
The subsequent Puma UAV design, begun in 2001, can be fairly characterized as a Pointer UAV that incorporates most of the industry’s advances since 1990.
2003: Aerovironment’s Dragon Eye/Swift (RQ-14) wins the US Marines’ competition for a mini-UAV.
2004: A new Aerovironment mini-UAV, the RQ-11A Raven, is fielded under limited expedited orders with the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and some special forces. This is not a formal competition, however, but an outgrowth of a 2002 ACTD (advanced concept technology demonstration) project.
Fall 2005: The US Army’s RPUAV competition arises from the RQ-11′s success. SOCOM joins this competition, and the upgraded RQ-11B Raven wins.
The US Marines switched from Dragon Eye to the Raven B in 2007, and the US Air Force now fields them too. Raven has also proved popular with foreign militaries, and is in service with Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain, among others.
August 2006: The USAF picks another Aerovironment mini-UAV for its BATMAV UAV competition, and deliveries begin under the 5-year $45 million contract. The Wasp UAV began as a DARPA project, and the larger Wasp-III is a 1-pound vehicle with a wingspan just under 3 feet. It is called a ‘micro-UAV,’ but in truth it sits on the borderline between mini-UAV systems and true micro-UAVs.
Late 2007: The US Marines began buying and issuing Wasp-IIIs at the platoon level, complementing the RQ-11 Raven B, which is issued at the company and battalion levels. In January 2008, the USAF approved full-rate BATMAV production.
June 2008: SOCOM’s AECV program aims to select a mini-UAV that can be used by all branches, including Navy SEAL teams and USMC MARSOC. It picks the Puma AE, a new UAV from Aerovironment that adds a stabilized micro-camera, waterproofing, and the ability to land and recover the UAV on water. The “RQ-20″ Puma subsequently finds a niche with route clearance minehunters, thanks to the advanced state of its optics, and ends up serving with the regular US Army, Marines & Air Force.
The Puma AE
Puma is slightly larger than Raven as is Aerovironment’s largest mini-UAV offering, but it’s still man-portable and hand-launched. The original Puma was almost 6 feet long, with a wingspan of 8.5 feet. Aerovironment pursued the typical young industry profile of build-field test-build as it developed the AE variant, issuing modified UAVs to units in the field for evaluation and feedback.
The US SOCOM contract has been the Puma program’s focus for a some time now, as SOCOM’s specifications led Aerovironment to conclude that its larger Puma platform was a better fit than the existing RQ-11B Raven. Along the way, Puma has been used for hybrid fuel cell experiments, and an “Aqua-Puma” driven by requests from the field served as an interim step along the road to the final Puma AE. In March 2012, it received the formal USAF designation “RQ-20A.”
The hand-launched Puma AE’s most significant innovation is that it can land on both land and water, surviving near-vertical “deep stall” final approaches. In addition to the obvious special forces scenarios like river infiltrations, the ability to land on water and in very tight areas on land means that Puma can also be used from boats and ships, without vessel modifications for landing systems or vehicle storage.
The other big innovation is its sensor system. Previous mini-UAV systems tended to have micro-cameras that could be moved by the operator to pan, tilt, or zoom. What they usually have not had was a camera that was fully stabilized to fix on a designated point and provide a steady, constant image that compensates for aircraft movement etc. Recently, firms like Israel’s Bental Systems have begun to offer stabilized micro-payloads. Puma AE incorporates this innovation in an EO/IR day- and night-capable, waterproof sensor package that provides this kind of image tracking and stabilization. Other payload designs can be clipped in as they are developed for military or civilian applications.
Control is exercised from Aerovironment’s Ground Control Station (GCS) with a line of sight communications range of 15 km, and the system has its own internal GPS for positioning. The Ground Control Station is shared by the firm’s Raven and Wasp/BATMAV systems. Flight endurance is about 2 hours in the production version, and typical flight altitude is 100-500 feet. Like other mini-UAVs, Puma relies on its small size, small radar profile, and quiet engine to avoid detection.
Contracts and Key Events
Jan 3/13: SUAS 2013-2017. U.S. Army Contracting Command in Natick, MA awards a 5-year, $248 million multiple-vendor fixed-price Small UAS contract. From FBO.gov:
“The Army currently has fielded 1,798 RQ-11B systems and 325 RQ-20A systems and has a requirement to sustain and maintain this existing fleet. The Army has met 92% of the RQ-11B Army Acquisition Objective (AAO), and has met 83% of the anticipated need for RQ-20A (required by USFOR-A-issued JUONS). Additionally, the current [DID: RQ-11B & RQ-20A] fleet has pre-planned spiral upgrades such as the Gimbal payload, which will be competed and retrofitted under this effort. The need exists to complete the AAO; maintain, sustain and upgrade the fleet; and procure future SUAS Systems as required by DoD, Other Government Agencies (OGA) and foreign countries.”
Vendors will compete for each order, and work can include full Unmanned Aerial Systems, upgrades, testing, packaging, marking, and storage and shipping. Work location will be determined with each order, and the contract runs until Dec 20/17. The bid was solicited through the Internet, with 5 bids received. All 5 qualified to compete:
- RQ-11B Raven & RQ-20A Puma: AeroVironment Inc. in Monrovia, CA (W911QY-13-D-0073). Obviously, they’re in a strong position for fleet upgrades at least, as well as for additional UAVs.
- NOVA Block III: Altavian in Gainesville, FL (W911QY-13-D-0074). They’re not a household name, but their air/land UAV is working with the USACE (Army Corps of Engineers). They partner with ISR Group Inc. in Savannah, TN for support and service.
- Skylark-I LE Block 2: Elbit Systems of America LLC in Fort Worth, TX (W911QY-13-D-0075).
- Skystinger, and others: Innovative Automation Technologies LLC in Gainesville, FL (W911QY-13-D-0076). Skystinger is more like the RQ-11 Raven, while their AXO is closer to the RQ-20 Puma. Note that The Skystinger is the only UAS that IAT could confirm, but they did say there was more than 1 UAS offered.
- Desert Hawk III: Lockheed Martin Corporation, Owego, NY (W911QY-13-D-0077). The Desert Hawk has been successfully used on the front lines by British forces.
Oct 20/12: Support. The US government announces a woman-owned small business only solicitation for up to $25.5 million in SUAS support work, after soliciting interest and finding 3 such businesses who qualify. The FBO.gov solicitation adds that:
“…SUAS PdO must maintain the capability to support current and future Warfighter needs for SUAS systems in CONUS and OCONUS…. The objective of the SUAS Support Program is to support the Warfighter’s as well as other Governmental Agencies (OGAs) and Non-Governmental Agencies users’ SUAS-related sustainment needs. These needs primarily include SUAS training, maintenance, repairs, and engineering services. Additionally, the SUAS PdO will require various logistics, technical management, and program management services to support its SUAS customers.”
USAF, USMC, Denmark & Sweden become customers; Puma becomes RQ-20; #1,000 delivered.
June 12/12: Danish win. Aerovironment announces a $9.6 million win in Denmark. This competed win follows a $2.4 million Danish Army order for RQ-11B Raven systems in 2007.
June 11/12: Swedish win. AeroVironment announces that they’ve won an unspecified Swedish firm fixed-price contract for 12 hybrid small unmanned aircraft systems. The Swedish Army’s order will be a mix of Puma AE and Wasp air vehicles, plus a set of common ground stations, training, and logistics support. Contract options could increase the buy to a total of 30 systems. The firm adds a roundup of foreign RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma, and Wasp customers:
“In addition to Sweden, other international governments that have purchased AeroVironment small UAS include Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.”
April 20/12: Puma = RQ-20. AeroVironment announces a $20.4 million firm-fixed-price follow-on order from the US Army for RQ-20A Puma AEs. They will provide overwatch for security, route clearance operations, etc. in Afghanistan. Delivery is scheduled within 30 days.
Separately, AeroVironment announced the production and delivery of its 1,000th Puma AE air vehicle, and the USAF’s approval of the “RQ-20A” designation for the Puma AE system.
Milestones: #1,000, RQ-20A
April 20/12: USMC order. AeroVironment announces the 1st RQ-20A Puma AE order from the US Marine Corps. The $5.6 million firm-fixed-price order was placed via the all-services contract now managed by the US Army. Delivery is scheduled within 2 weeks.
The USMC were pioneers in adopting mini-UAVs, picking AeroVironment’s RQ-14 Dragon Eye in 2003 for the Small Unit Remote Scouting System (SURSS) program. Other buys from the firm have included Wasp mini-UAVs beginning in 2007, and the replacement of their Dragon Eyes with RQ-11B Ravens beginning in 2009. The Puma buy will give the Marines the full 3 tiers of mini-UAV performance: Wasp, Raven, and Puma, ahead of the US Army’s own plans (vid. Feb 4/11 entry).
April 18/12: USAF order. AeroVironment announces its 1st Puma AE order from the USAF, which already uses its RQ-11 Raven and Wasp mini-UAVs. The $2.4 million firm-fixed-price order is below the threshold for public notification, and was placed on April 5/12 through the existing U.S. Army contract. Delivery is scheduled within 2 weeks.
April 4/12: Plans. The US Army discusses its plans for a family of small UAVs again. They may actually be headed toward 2 Family of Small UAS contracts (1 products, 1 services), in an effort to “refine requirements.” After all this time, the Army is still working on a capabilities document outlining the parameters of the Family of Small UAS.
The Army is also hoping to develop a universal control station for the F-SUAS.
Feb 13/12: Sentient MTI. AeroVironment, Inc. announces an exclusive global distribution license with Sentient in Melbourne, Australia for its Kestrel Land MTI Tier I automatic target detection software, designed for full motion video for use with small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Kestrel software automatically detects moving objects, then places tracking boxes around them for easy monitoring. That’s especially helpful with mini-UAVs, because of the payload optics’ limitations, and better tracking of multiple moving objects fills an obvious need of front-line troops.
Over the past 18 months Sentient and AeroVironment have optimized and integrated the software with AeroVironment’s mini-UAS common Ground Control System for Puma, Raven, and Wasp UAVs. Sentient makes a number of Kestrel solutions used around the world. It’s worth noting that the AeroVironment deal doesn’t impair its Kestrel Land MTI Tier II/III used by larger UAVs like the ScanEagle, RQ-7 Shadow, and MQ-9 Reaper; and by patrol aircraft like the P-3 Orion; or its Kestrel Maritime products. What it does, is fence in the market for mini-UAS solutions with a desirable and hard-to copy capability. AeroVironment | Sentient.
Jan 31/12: Pentagon DVIDS discusses preparations by the “Lancers” of Second Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, who are “going into Operation Enduring Freedom with the most Raven [a small unit UAS] and Puma operators in the history of OEF combat,” according to AMCOM UAS specialist Tarah Hollingsworth. Sgt. Christopher Harris, a 2nd SBCT UAS operations non-commissioned officer, adds that:
“I was on the initial fielding of the Puma when it was first brought in about three years ago when I was in Afghanistan… We were able to use it on all kinds of patrols, whether it be presence patrols, recon or anything of that sort. I utilized it two times for a call for fire; it’s very accurate for that.”
US Army joins AECV buy, assumes management of the contract; US Army’s 3-tier mini-UAV plans; RQ-16′s Tango Uniform opportunity?; Communication relay demo; Training issues.
2011: The US Army assumes management of US SOCOM’s AECV contract, following its own October 2010 order for the UAVs, and interest from other services. Source.
AECV = Army
Aug 16/11: Comm relay. Boeing announces successful May and August demonstrations of its new narrowband communications relay, using an Insitu ScanEagle and AeroVironment’s Puma AE mini-UAV. During the multiservice demonstrations, held in California, the UAVs flew at a variety of altitudes while linking handheld military radios dispersed over mountainous regions, extending the radios’ range tenfold.
Larger RQ-7B Shadow UAVs have also been used in this role, but those are generally controlled at the battalion level or above. Narrowband relays small enough to work on hand-launched mini-UAVs like the Puma AE would represent an important step forward, especially for Special Operations forces.
August 16/11: AeroVironment, Inc. announces a $65.5 million firm-fixed-price contract delivery order for new digital Puma AEs, and initial spares packages. It’s another buy under the existing $200 million US SOCOM All Environment Capable Variant (AECV) contract (vid. July 1/08), and will be delivered in the coming months.
June 9/11: AeroVironment, Inc. in Monrovia, CA receives a $13.1 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract modification for “Puma unmanned aircraft systems training and contractor logistics support.” Aerovironment has since confirmed that this is for the Puma AE. They now simply call it “Puma,” because the very different UAV they had formerly called Puma is not in production.
Work will be performed in Simi Valley, CA, and Kandahar, Afghanistan, with an estimated completion date of Oct 14/11. One bid was solicited, with one bid received by the U.S. Army Contracting Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-11-C-0004).
April 20/11: Training issues. The US Army currently equips each brigade with 15 RQ-11B Raven systems, but the 9 Afghan BCTs want to raise that to 35 each (105 UAVs). They’re also shipping larger Puma-AE UAV systems into theater, with 64 in and another 20 requested. So what’s the problem? Training.
Right now, the US FAA requires Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, in order to fly UAVs in US air space. There are limits to that requirement, but it takes months to get that certification, and it’s hurting operator training. Commanders are complaining that some operators lack adequate pre-combat preparation, and must learn on the job.
In response, the US Army has instituted a buddy program, a tracking program for operators, and a ground-based technical solution. Under the buddy program, skilled mini-UAV operators will teach other soldiers. The web tracker will make sure that qualified operators don’t get lost in the shuffle when they move from one brigade to another. The technical solution involves a ground-based sense-and-avoid system that may help expedite FAA certification. NDIA’s National Defense Magazine.
April 21/11: AeroVironment, Inc. announces an $11.5 million firm-fixed-price delivery order for new digital Puma AE systems, initial spares packages, and training services.
The new UAVs were bought under the existing United States Special Operations Command All Environment Capable Variant (USSOCOM AECV) indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract, and deliveries are scheduled to be completed over the next several months.
Feb 4/11: Platoon mini-trio. Aviation Week reports that the US Army wants to beef up UAV availability down to the platoon level, in an environment where, as Army Operations Office aviation UAS director Lt. Col. James Cutting puts it, “there will never be enough multi-million-dollar systems to cover them.” Where now there are 17 RQ-11 Ravens in a brigade combat team (BCT), the Army plans to increase this to 49 “Small UAS family of systems”, initially made up of AeroVironment’s Puma at the high end, RQ-11B Raven mini-UAV as the core, and smaller Wasp III as the true “flying binoculars” micro-UAV.
Down the road, this set is expected to be a competition, and the numbers involved make it an attractive target. According to Cutting, the Army will push the new UAVs directly down to engineer, armor and infantry units, rather than forming more aviation units and adding their overhead. Since the UAVs in question are so small, and fly at under 1,000 feet, they can be used without worrying about “deconfliction,” and don’t really require the same planning & support overhead as, for instance, a unit of RQ-7B Shadows, or MQ-1C Gray Eagles. Aviation Week | Aviation Week Ares.
Jan 6/11: The US Army issues a stop-work order on the Class I Unmanned Aerial System (RQ-16 T-Hawk), as part of the E-IBCT next-generation brigades. Formal termination takes place on Feb 3/11. In light of the Oct 22/10 order, this could become a major opportunity for the Puma AE. Defense News.
Oct 26/10: Aerovironment announces a $7.2 million for an unspecified number of new digital Puma AE systems and training services, under the existing US SOCOM indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract.
Oct 25/10: More Army minis. The NDIA’s National Defense magazine reports that Puma AE is forcing its way into regular Army operations, due to a combination of unforgiving high-altitude terrain and roadside mission demands:
“The Army currently supplies 15 sets of Ravens (with three aircraft per set) to each brigade in Afghanistan. The current plan is to buy 3,000 Ravens, and the Army so far has acquired more than 2,000… [but units] have asked for a “larger small” unmanned aircraft that can carry more sensors and fly longer… So the Army is now tapping into the SOCOM contract and buying 72 Pumas to meet urgent demands, Gonzalez said. The Puma request came directly from the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus… The Army already is testing the concept of a “family” of three aircraft (Raven, Puma and Wasp) in combat. It fielded 15 sets six months ago to the 101st Airborne Division and will allow the unit to keep them for a year for further evaluation, said Gonzalez. One of the concerns is designing a controller that can operate all three aircraft.”
Oct 22/10: AeroVironment, Inc. in Simi Valley, CA receives a $17.2 million cost-plus-fixed-fee letter contract, which establishes not-to-exceed amounts for Puma-AE capable contractor logistics support, training, and accounting for contract services in support of Joint Urgent Operational Need Statement CC-0289, entitled, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Route Clearance.”
AeroVironment confirms that this order is for the regular army, not SOCOM. The RQ-16 T-Hawk ducted fan UAV is supposed to be handling that special niche, but the Puma would appear to have carved out a place, thanks to its stabilized EO/IR payload, and added conventional reconnaissance capabilities. Work is to be performed in Simi Valley, CA, with an estimated completion date of Oct 14/11. One bid was solicited with one bid received by U.S. Army Contracting Command, CCAM-AR-A at Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-11-C-0004).
FY 2008 – 2010
$200M AECV win for US special Operations.
Sept 8/10: An additional order valued at $4.4 million for Puma AE payloads and retrofits. Work is scheduled to be performed “within a period of several months.” Source.
Aug 31/10: Aerovironment announces a $35.3 million delivery order for digital Puma AE systems, spares and training service, under the existing US SOCOM indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract. Work is scheduled to be performed “within a period of several months.”
July 1/08: US SOCOM AECV. AeroVironment, Inc., wins a 5-year (base year plus 4 one-year option periods), maximum $200 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for an “all environment capable variant small unmanned aircraft systems” from the US SOCOM’s Program Executive Office – Fixed Wing. It covers aircraft, ground control systems, spares, repairs and training under a combination firm fixed-price, cost-plus-fixed-fee and cost reimbursable arrangement. The initial delivery order is valued at $6 million, and is fully funded.
Work will be performed in Simi Valley, CA and the base year period lasts for exactly 1 year from date of contract award. This contract was awarded through full and open competition (H92222-08-D-0048). See also Aerovironment release.
March 6/08: AeroVironment announces a 9 hour flight for a modified Puma powered by an onboard fuel cell/ battery hybrid energy storage system. During the flight, a 2-camera payload system provided a live, streaming video feed from the Puma. Aerovironment developed the battery pack, power electronics and controls portion of the hybrid energy storage system, which used London-listed Protonex Technology Corporation’s Pulse UAV fuel cell system.
This successful demonstration is not part of the SOCOM bid, but is conducted under Aerovironment’s separate small business innovation research (SBIR) Phase II contract with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). AFRL’s goal is to develop advanced energy storage and propulsion technologies for unmanned aircraft. The overall program advanced swiftly from kickoff in January 2007, to a 5-hour flight in May 2007, a 7-hour flight in July 2007, and then this 9-hour flight. Aerovironment release.
Additional Readings & Sources
- Aerovironment – UAS: Puma AE
- Aerovironment – UAS Advanced Development Center: Fuel Cell Puma
- Designation Systems – Aerovironment Puma. Differs in a number of significant respects from the Puma AE.
- Aerovironment – BATMAV. Also known as Wasp-III.
- USAF – BATMAV Micro Unmanned Aircraft System
- See DID’s coverage of the RQ-11 Raven, beginning in Feb 2005 with “Raven UAV Draws Raves From The Field” and including “Field Report on Raven, Shadow UAVs From the 101st“.
- DID (2005) – AeroVironment Given SBIR contract for New UAVs: Can They Do It Again?