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COVER STORY Team V-BAT – Targeting the RCN’s ISTAR procurement

COVER STORY Team V-BAT – Targeting the RCN’s ISTAR procurement

BY JOETEY ATTARIWALA

Team V-BAT

The World’s Choice for Maritime UAS 

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has utilized various Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for a number of years, and it recognizes the potential that these systems provide for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR).

The result of these experiences has led to the RCN ISTAR UAS project which will provide a future airborne platform that can be operated from the Halifax-class frigate in order to provide near real-time, ISTAR information. This ability will provide critical over the horizon situational awareness and generate an operational advantage for commanders while minimizing the risk to the frigate or its maritime helicopter complement in support of simple to multi-threat operations.

Competing for the RCN ISTAR project is Team V-BAT which is a collaboration of three leading technical organizations, each providing highly specialized and experienced capabilities to enable a compliant, non-developmental solution. Team V-BAT is primed by Canada’s Voyageur Aviation, and includes Shield AI, the designer and manufacturer of the V-BAT platform, and Ottawa-based Kongsberg Geospatial, who will provide software for Advanced Visualization, Sensor Data Management and Shipboard System Interfaces.

The Team V-BAT solution is centered around the multi-mission V-BAT UAS, an innovative, agile, compact and lightweight platform that is a fully compliant product offering which will incorporate a significant amount of Canadian content.

The V-BAT is the only single-engine ducted fan Vertical Take-Off & Landing (VTOL) platform that can launch and recover from a hover, fly up to 11 hours in horizontal flight, and make mid-flight transitions to “hover and stare” at any time throughout a given mission set. U.S. and international customers view the V-BAT as a flexible platform capable of performing Group 2 to Group 4 UAS missions and beyond. 

The decision to compete the V-BAT for RCN ISTAR is based on the competitive success that the system has already achieved, the most notable of which saw the V-BAT beating 13 competitors to win the U.S. Navy and SOCOM Multi-Mission Tactical UAS (MTUAS) Increment 2 Program. 

CDR spoke with Brandon Tseng, former Navy SEAL and President and Co-founder of Shield AI, about the program. “We think this program will be an accelerant for V-BAT in maritime, contested domains — especially as we think more broadly about V-BAT operating with U.S. forces in many areas of operation — and the value that organic Group 3 VTOL UAS can bring to all Navy ships. It’s humbling to see V-BAT emerging as the combined-joint Group 3 UAS of choice, and we just want to continue to delight the warfighter as we scale.”

The U.S. Department of Defense has recently conferred the V-BAT with the designation of MQ-35A, a distinction which is reserved for platforms of record that have shown a degree of defence maturity and tactical effectiveness.

“Shield AI recognizes the importance of working with established Canadian companies and building on the important contributions that Canadian industry partners can play in the global growth of Shield AI,” Tseng told CDR. “We will build on these relationships with Voyageur Aviation and Kongsberg Geospatial as a part of our growing supply chain network in Canada and internationally.”

: (Left to Right) • Bob Harwood, SVP of International Business Development; Shield AI • Carl Kumpic, VP Defence & Government Programs; Voyageur Aviation • Clay Kroschel, Director of International Business Development of Canada & LATAM, Shield AI • Aaron Brodhagen, MRO Sales Manager; Voyageur Aviation • Paige Cutland , VP Sales and Marketing; Kongsberg Geospatial • Chris Gagnon, Solutions Engineering Manager; Kongsberg Geospatial Credit: Joetey Attariwala

MARITIME OPERATIONS 

Known as the Maritime UAS of choice, the V-BAT is perfectly suited for maritime forces to quickly operate in support of dynamic mission sets at sea. The platform provides tactical flexibility with substantially decreased logistical requirements as the entire system’s small footprint, quick set-up and rapid deployment capabilities are elements which are designed to support fast-moving missions, including handing off control to dispersed elements if desired. 

VTOL capabilities allow the V-BAT to safely launch and recover on a wide range of small, medium and large vessels. The V-BAT can carry multiple ISR sensor payloads simultaneously to provide a variety of tactical mission capabilities at sea and over land. Its unique modular design enables ease of storage without the need to modify ships, and enables easy passage through standard hatches of ships such as the Halifax-class. 

Since 2018, the V-BAT has demonstrated proven performance over thousands of hours of shipboard operations for operators including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard. The V-BAT system is regularly deployed in support of Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) and has been launched from numerous types of navy ships. 

For RCN ISTAR, Voyageur Aviation would provide full airworthiness and special mission services for the V-BAT Center of Excellence for Canada, which includes program management, logistics, technical support training for the platform, provisioning the maintenance and supply chain, and in-service support (ISS). 

“We are very pleased to lead Team V-BAT to leverage our strong Canadian capability in delivering aircraft maintenance and in-service support solutions for the Canadian Forces,” said Cory Cousineau, President of Voyageur Aviation “Our in-depth experience as an operator supporting deployed missions will help ensure that we deliver reliable and available operations for the RCN domestically and globally.” 

CDR also spoke with Carl Kumpic, Vice-President of Defence and Government Programs at Voyageur. “The V-BAT is the platform of choice for the United States Marine Corps and other operators, and that’s because it is the most efficient multi-mission UAS platform for shipboard operations,” Kumpic told CDR. “The system meets what we currently understand about the Canadian requirements for RCN ISTAR in terms of being able to be handled by two people, being able to be set up and launched within 30 minutes, and being able to be transported through the tight corridors and doors that exist on the Halifax-class.”

A Shield AI V-BAT landing on USS Arleigh Burke’s (DDG 51) flight deck

THE V-BAT PLATFORM 

The beauty of the V-BAT lies in its simplicity as the entire system was designed from the outset to reduce maintenance and cost. As a modular platform, the V-BAT UAS can be easily transported, assembled and quickly configured for a number of ISTAR missions as the platform has the capacity to support a wide range of interchangeable and customizable payloads and sensors including, but not limited to: electro-optical/infra-red cameras, AIS, synthetic aperture radar, Electronic Warfare (EW) systems, and Land/Maritime Wide Area Search, SATCOM and AI-based capabilities. 

“The thing that makes V-BAT stand out is we’ve been flying in the maritime environment on maritime combat operations for five years now, and we’re the only ones that have really been flying off the back of Navy warships, and that would bring the most value to ISTAR,” said Clay Kroschel, International Business Development Director at Shield AI. “We have more than 6,000 maritime naval flight hours on U.S. Navy ships, and we’ve been deployed at TRL 9 [highest Technology Readiness Level] for five years — I don’t think our competitors can say that.” 

A typical V-BAT system includes two aircraft, each of which are transported in ruggedized crates. The V-BAT UAS sub-components are easily handled by two individuals, which means the support footprint for the V-BAT is among the smallest of all known options. 

The V-BAT UAS essentially comes in five parts or sub-components: left and right wing, engine duct assembly, fuselage module, and nose cone / sensor module. The heaviest sub-component weighs 40 kg, while the entire platform weighs 56 kg inclusive of fuel and payload. 

Operation of the V-BAT is facilitated through two ruggedized laptops which facilitate the Air Vehicle Operator and Mission Operator. The mission profile of the V-BAT is via pre-programmed waypoints which can be adjusted on-the-fly, and that means operators can focus more on mission and sensor management as opposed to “flying” the platform. This concept of operation leverages modern technology and is meant to simplify operations and maximize mission effectiveness. 

Unlike other rotary-wing UAS solutions, the V-BAT has a novel tail-sitting configuration which means it requires no more than 3.5 square meters of deck space for launch and recovery. Such evolutions require no launcher or landing restraint system whatsoever. 

One of the key differentiators between V-BAT and other VTOL aircraft is its patented ducted fan design. V-BAT’s duct provides an increase of thrust by 80%+ at equivalent engine power, enabling take-off and landing with a single power plant and achieving unmatched payload mass fraction. The duct also provides increased safety, eliminating operator safety zones, which expands its tactical employment envelope. 

The V-BAT’s single engine is used for both VTOL and for cruise, and can thrust the platform to a maximum velocity of 90 knots. V-BAT can takeoff and land during day or night in winds up to 25 knots — once launched, it autonomously turns into the wind, and thrust vectoring provides V-BAT with unmatched control authority for stability even in harsh weather conditions — it can then pitch over to utilize its wings for lift, which makes it extremely efficient. V-BAT has an endurance of 10 hours with a 25lb payload, and a ceiling of 20,000 feet. 

According to Shield AI, the V-BAT has the ability to operate from a moving vessel with +/- 4 degrees of deck pitch and +/- 10 degrees of roll. Refueling can be conducted in less than 10 minutes, and the sensor payload can be changed by a support technician using basic tools in less than 6 minutes. 

Shield AI is testing and validating a Heavy Fuel Engine option for the V-BAT which will be unveiled at RIMPAC 24. The HFE V-BAT will optimize maritime operations not only for the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard but will also satisfy RCN ISTAR requirements.

CCG TESTED  

In December 2021, Shield AI and Kongsberg Geospatial demonstrated the effectiveness of the V-BAT with the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), aboard a ship at sea, which consisted of maritime surveillance scenarios in a variety of weather conditions. 

Kongsberg Geospatial specializes in precision real-time software for mapping, geospatial visualization, and situational awareness, and its IRIS UxS architecture was used for navigation and situational awareness of the airspace and marine environment. 

“Kongsberg Geospatial has extensive experience across the breadth of defence ISR systems and particularly as a supplier of unmanned systems control systems and sensor data management solutions,” said Jordan Freed, President of Kongsberg Geospatial. “We will bring these made-in-Canada capabilities to Team V-BAT to help deliver a world-class, operational Canadian capability based on the best-of-breed aircraft in this category.” 

The IRIS UxS facilitates UAS control system for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight operations, both for individual aircraft and for fleet operations with multiple semi-autonomous aircraft. 

“Our IRIS system overlays on top of the command and control system that Shield AI provides. It provides an enhanced user interface, to provide a common operating picture for the vehicle and sensor operator,” said Paige Cutland, VP Sales and Marketing at Kongsberg Geospatial. “The IRIS system already provides the interface formats needed to feed directly into the ship’s command and control system, and that makes the required ship CMS integration very low risk.” 

For sensor data management, Kongsberg’s MIDAS system provides a near real-time system for processing, exploiting, and disseminating sensor data from the V-BAT, along with recording capabilities for each sensor type.

LEADING THE PACK 

With the RCN ISTAR Request for Proposals anticipated in November, Team V-BAT is wasting no time in ensuring their Canadian-led solution is the most comprehensive and compliant of all respondents, inclusive of unmatched Industrial and Technological Benefits and Key Industrial Capabilities. 

“Team V-BAT has been working together for the better part of two years, so we see the value that each partner would bring to the overall program for the Navy, and we believe that value can also be passed on to other nations as well,” Kumpic told CDR. “We’re looking at exporting Team V-BAT, so the solutions that we would provide to Canada are similar to what we would offer other nations. For instance, the training content and training devices that we’d be using in Canada would be part of a package that Shield AI could sell to a foreign military operator. Think also in terms of support functions such as maintenance, and the command & control system that Kongsberg is working on with Shield AI — these will become part of a package that will help Shield AI provide even better value to international customers.” 

“We’re exploring the opportunity to do contractor owned / contractor operated service, so there might be a scenario where Team V-BAT could operate commercially for operations within Canada.” 

The V-BAT continues to demonstrate system maturity as the platform was recently chosen by the U.S. Army to participate in the Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems (FTUAS) competition, Increment 2, which is meant to replace the RQ-7B Shadow tactical UAS. Under a seven-week base period contract, a Northrop Grumman-led team will define the modular open-system architecture of an enhanced V-BAT aircraft, including the integration of advanced surveillance and EW payloads. 

“We know V-BAT is perfectly suited for the Halifax-class, but we also see a lot of opportunities for this platform on other Canadian ships because of V-BAT’s size and the way that it launches and recovers,” said Kumpic. “It could provide a good environmental scan for the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessels, MCDVs, and Canadian Coast Guard vessels, as well as being a great capability to enhance the future Canadian Surface Combatant. There’s all kinds of room for innovation in this system so I am totally convinced that once the Navy has the V-BAT in their toolbox, they’ll come up with new ideas from an operational perspective for other areas of innovation. 

There is no doubt that Team V-BAT will be able to provide the Royal Canadian Navy with a fully compliant, proven UAS which will be supported by Canadian partners for both domestic and deployed operations. The team has worked for years to ensure they can provide a cost competitive solution that will enhance the situational awareness for RCN ships, and a solution that will stimulate further development of UAS technologies in Canada. 

Joetey Attariwala is CDR’s Senior Staff Writer 

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