Shadow Defies Gravity With Success

Shadow Defies Gravity With Success

By Dialogo
March 09, 2011

An unmanned aircraft system in the Army’s fleet today is defying gravity, soaring ever higher in performance and zooming down on cost.

And, in a budget-conscious Department of Defense, exceeding performance and cost goals are enough to make the RQ-7B Shadow 200 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle a target for recognition.

Such was the case last fall when Shadow won the prestigious Performance-Based Logistics Award from the Secretary of Defense. According to the award nomination package, the Shadow PBL contract achieved exceptionally high readiness with the system, while simultaneously reducing its costs and improving its reliability.

But such recognition doesn’t mean the Shadow is coasting on its merits. Rather, its government-contractor team is honed in on even better performance and cost savings.

“We’ve taken cost very seriously and we’ve indoctrinated a lot of things into Shadow to bring those costs down. We’ve also decreased incident rates,” Todd Smith, deputy product manager for Shadow, said of the 43 Redstone Arsenal-based employees whose work is centered on product development, sustainment, cost, scheduling, performance and other life cycle management issues pertaining to Shadow.

Described as the “workhorse” of the Army’s unmanned aircraft systems, Shadow has exceeded 600,000 combat hours in Iraq and Afghanistan since it was introduced to the Army fleet in 2003, flying missions for the first time during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Army has fielded 98 Shadow systems, and the Marines 11. Its mission in unmanned, over-the-horizon reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition has made it a forerunner in providing situational analysis to Soldiers on the battlefield.

Even so, those early Shadow years did present challenges.

“The Shadow has been the Army’s first and most successful unmanned aircraft program of record,” said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Program Executive Office for Aviation.

“The program followed on the heels of other UAS programs that tried to do too much, too soon, failing in the process,” Gonzalez explained. “Shadow’s initial success was based on getting a simple capability quickly into the hands of the Soldiers.”

Unfortunately, the simplicity in design caused problems with reliability, Gonzalez said. Early accidents of the Shadow system reached a rate of more than 400 per 100,000 flight hours.

“Even as the first systems were fielded to warfighters, the product manager embarked on a strategy to improve the capability and reliability of the system,” Gonzalez said. “Early reliability improvements were easy to identify and fix. Over time it became much more difficult to build in reliability in a cost effective way, but the Shadow team pressed on and has done a miraculous job. The cumulative impact of these improvements is monumental.”

For the quarter ending in December 2010, the Shadow fleet achieved the lowest accident rate in its history, approaching 29 incidents per 100,000 flight hours.

“It continues to fly unprecedented flight hours in theater,” Gonzalez said.