AUSA Global Force 2019, Huntsville, AL

Defense Systems Journal spend some time at the 2019 AUSA Global Force chatting with Errol Farr, AeroVironment’s Huntsville-based Director of Domestic Business Development, about the company’s priorities and plans. 

Enhancing the RQ-20 Puma

Domestic and international interest in AV’s RQ-20B Puma UAS, perhaps the company’s centerpiece offering, remain strong.

AV’s Puma 3 UAS

Farr indicated that customer-driven upgrades to the Puma 3 airframe (above), released last year, enable simultaneous and effective operation of its Mantis i45 EO/IR gimbal sensor suite along with SIGINT payloads, in a standard configuration. As suggested in the picture below, the i45 payload retracts and stows into the Puma’s fuselage for safe landing.

Mantis i45 EO/IR gimbal

In addition, the Puma 3 incorporates AV’s latest digital data link (DDL) with security upgrades to support operation in more challenging radio frequency (RF) environments, with M1/M2/M5 and M3/M4/M6 frequency bands and with AES-256 encryption. The Puma also features two new antennas that Farr notes provide the system with a demonstrated range of up to 60 kilometers.

Farr notes that appropriate system tweaks are made to the Puma, on a customer-by-customer basis, to allow for broad international sales. These international sales, he says, now account for a significant percentage, perhaps close to half, of all new system sales.

A Focus on Autonomy

Farr notes that AV was really the leader in small UAS autonomy and wants to “get back to that innovation” and reclaim that leadership position.

He told DSJ that AV has named a Director of Autonomy and the company is focusing on how it help reduce the cognitive workload on its systems’ operators. This means increasing system autonomy to allow operators to focus on other tasks. This focus on “things others than flying” is already there with larger UAS and is coming down to Group 1.

And he not just talking about freeing the UAS pilot to operate the payload. Says Farr: “I want the payload to tell a soldier that something’s going on.  So that soldier who’s walking gets a notice and knows, hey, there’s something over there that I need to be aware of it. So that’s the goal, that’s what I’d like to see us do.”

Loitering Munitions & Switchblade

Farr indicated that AV was proud to continue to support the operational requirements of its customer for a loitering mention with the company’s lethal Switchblade munition. (Indeed, as mentioned in a recent Motley Fool article, since its introduction more than a decade ago, sales of the Switchblade have soared to the point where this single product now accounts for roughly 24% of all the revenue AV books in a year.)

AV’s Switchblade Munition

Farr noted that AV is closely tracking the Army’s Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System (LMAMS) and Air Launched Effects (ALE) as well as the Marine Corps Organic Precision Firepower (OPF) initiatives. “We’re definitely engaged with everybody to see what they looking for as they go to that next level of loitering munitions and how we can we bring our expertise to bear on that. It is a natural progression for us.”

In the meantime, AV can be expected to update and upgrade Switchblade much in the way that it has enhanced the Puma, including with enhanced comms, data links, and higher level of encryption.

Looking at the Market, Moving Ahead

Missing from the AV’s 2019 AUSA Global Force stand were its Shrike/Shrike 2 Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) UAS.  First unveiled in 2011 and featured prominently by the company as recently as last year’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), these civil-military quadcopter systems have now been “sunset.”

AV’s Shrike VTOL Quadcopter, now “sunset”

Farr concedes that the civil UAS market was perhaps not yet ready, or at least not yet budgeted, for a high-end product and AV is taking a step back.  AV has, at least to some degree, rolled these VTOL UAS into the company’s strategic relationship with General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) announced last year

Indeed, Farr related that AV is presently in the midst of a “deep dive” to ask how the company can “disrupt itself” and, in so doing, become an integrated robotics solution provider. Says Farr: “The answers will depend on our ongoing analysis but our goal is to provide our customers the most capable Robotics Systems to meet their existing and emerging requirements.”

Farr says that an answer is in the works.  As to when the strategy will be clear, Farr hedges: “I don’t want to put a timeline on it now but we’re actively working towards a solution.”