Where Army aviation’s going, it doesn’t need roads. Or runways, or plains, or any of the other vital-yet-unreliable stretches of flat, open ground. As the Army looks to replace its venerable RQ-7 Shadow drones, it’s looking at designs that can perform the same mission, but without a reliance on runways. One such design in contention is the V-BAT, a vertical-takeoff and landing drone designed in collaboration by MartinUAV and Northrop Grumman.
“Runway independence became a desire for a special operations and all the other services because of the austere environments ever find themselves in,” said Heath Niemi, vice president global sales and development MartinUAV. “And the limitations of range based on having to be confined to a runway to return to.”
To that end, V-BAT is a tailsitting VTOL plane powered by a two-stroke engine that can ingest heavy fuel or a gasoline/oil mix. “V” stands for vertical, but BAT is just “bat,” an appreciation for either the flying mammals or superheroes inspired by the flying mammals and not anything else. Weighing in at a maximum of 84 pounds, with a wingspace of 9 feet and a length of 8 feet, the V-BAT is in a medium place, larger that the biggest small drones and much smaller than the smallest big drones. It has a top speed of just over 100 mph, a ceiling of 15,000 feet, and has a range of over 350 miles (limited by fuel) or over 60 miles (limited by the telemetry).
“You can hand off control to a forward element and as long as they have have some sort of a ground control station and antenna,” said Niemi. “They could take control of that drone, visit the local area and pass it back or pass it on.”
The concept is that, while the drone’s signal may be limited in range, a single drone could provide reconnaissance for several units. Launching the V-BAT can be done with as few as two people, and controlling it in flight can be done by a single person with a control station. Piloting is done through software and waypoint navigation, so a tablet configured to run the program and set up with an antenna that can transmit the commands is really all that’s needed. The lack of specialized equipment needed to launch or recover the V-BAT emphasizes this flexibility, making a drone designed to operate as easily from the deck of a ship as the back of a truck or a small clearing in some distant woods.
“Most drones in this size are allocated for brigades and we believe that [V-BAT] is for battalion and below, maybe even company level,” said Niemi.
In addition to participating in Army exercises, the Marine Corps is exploring the V-BAT for its needs, in part because of the autonomous landing capability and in part because it can “hover and stare,” rotating to vertical while held aloft by its ducted fan. The orientation of the V-BAT makes the hovering somewhat unusual, like a matchstick with wings standing on end. The location of the sensors in the forward nose-cone could also impose some limitations on where it can look when hovering, but aesthetics and learning curve aside, the ability to travel fixed wing but hover in place on missions is present and novel.
Ducted fans, especially gasoline powered ducted fans, are notoriously noisy, which is a concern for the V-BAT during takeoff, landing and any hovering, though Niemi suggests the noise and power usage are both greatly reduced when the V-BAT is in forward flight as a fixed-wing.
As the Army looks to replace its aging fleet of Shadow drones, V-BAT is set to participate in Future Tactical UAS, the Army’s fly-off to determine what, exactly, it needs in a new drone and if there are any existing models that can perform the role.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.