This Airboat-Like Contraption Fights to Become a U.S. Army Drone for Future Wars

Just a quick glance at all the defense projects America is currently undertaking would have one believe a new age of military hardware is upon us. And that belief would be spot on, as new types of threats require new types of hardware.
Shield AI V-BAT 11 photos
Photo: Shield AI
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For years now the American military has relied on drones to perform some of its missions. It’s been so long since the first armed one took to the sky and performed a combat mission (the MQ-1 Predator in 2001) that some of the now many types of drones are in need of a replacement.

One of them would be the RQ-7B Shadow. Invented by the AAI Corporation in 1991, it entered military service in 2002, being used primarily by Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) for reconnaissance purposes.

The Shadow launches from a trailer-mounted catapult, and can stay in the air for up to nine hours. When it returns to base, it needs arresting gear to catch it. And in the current global environment, such an approach when it comes to take-off and landing seems a tad too complicated.

That’s why back in 2021 the U.S. Army launched a quest to find a replacement for it. It dressed this quest in military program clothes and named it Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System.

Martin UAV V\-BAT drone
Photo: Martin UAV via Twitter
That’s FTUAS for short, and in a nutshell, it seeks to find a new type of vertical take-off and landing machine (VTOL) that can be used for the same type of missions the Shadow is presently capable of. Most importantly though, the hardware will have to be runway-independent, and ideally not need a catapult or arresting gear for operations.

Earlier this year, the Army announced the names of the companies competing for the end contract. The list includes names like Griffon Aerospace, Sierra Nevada, Textron, and AeroVironment, with its Jump 20 drone having a shot at it. Another big name in the defense industry is on this list too, and that’s Northrop Grumman. In its case though, the competing design is not made in-house but developed together with startup Shield AI.

This crew describes itself as the maker of artificial intelligence-powered drones, and some of its hardware, like the V-BAT, is a perfect example of that. It's not a VTOL in the classical sense of the word, but something that in the proper light and setting looks more like an alien spacecraft.

V-BATs have been in use with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps since 2016, but not necessarily on a large scale. Should the contraption be the winner of the FTUAS, we’ll probably see a lot more of them serve, hence our need to take a closer look at it.

Shield AI V\-BAT
Photo: Shield AI
You know how typical VTOLs come with multiple, exposed rotors, usually placed on top of the aircraft’s main body? Well, the V-BAT is the exact opposite: it only has a single rotor, hidden from sight by a protective cover. VTOLs also look more like helicopters, and generally they don’t have wings in the proper sense of the word. The Shield AI drone has wings, and that makes it a rather peculiar sight.

The drone launches vertically, and when in this position it looks like some sort of Christian cross monument with a fat base. Once in the air however it goes horizontal (it takes it just 15 seconds to do that), and ends up looking like a blend between a winged aircraft and an airboat. When it comes in for landing, it tilts back to a vertical position to become the cross again.

The way it was designed allows it to take to the skies from pretty much everywhere, including moving ships, and totally oblivious to high winds thanks to thrust vectoring. When returning, it only needs a space 12 by 12 feet large (3.6 by 3.6 meters) to land, so the runway-independent condition of the FTUAS program is met.

The drone has only one rotor in the form of a fan at the bottom (or at the rear, depending how you look at it), because it doesn’t need more than that. V-BAT uses a ducted fan design that provides 80 percent more thrust at equivalent engine power – sadly, the exact numbers behind this Shield AI statement have not been provided.

Martin UAV V\-BAT drone
Photo: Northrop Grumman
Unlike the Shadow currently in service, this drone can stay in the air for as long as 10 hours, either moving from place to place at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) or hovering over the target area for long stretches of time.

It can perform a variety of tasks while in the air, from detecting forest fires to looking in on some enemy activity. For that, it can be equipped with a number of payloads, including cameras, optical sensors, or radar systems.

The V-BAT is 9 feet (2.7 meters) long and has a wingspan roughly the same size. That means it can be moved from place to place not only inside a Black Hawk helicopter, but also any larger pickup truck the Army may be using. And it’s easy to deploy, too - we’re told it takes a crew of just two people no more than 20 minutes to have it ready for flight.

All of the above are the known details of the existing V-BAT. For the FTUAS program, Northrop Grumman will work with Shield AI to develop an even more capable variant of the drone that should be even easier to operate. We’re not told the exact details of this new version, but its makers also hint at it having more power.

The U.S. Army plans to announce the winner of the FTUAS program in 2025, so it isn’t that long until we learn if the V-BAT will become a new soldier tool for use in future wars.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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