By Mr. Mark Schauer (ATEC)June 3, 2019
U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) is currently the epicenter of testing for the Army's top modernization priority: long-range precision artillery fires.
Artillery testing has long been the proving ground's bread and butter, but aviation testing for both military and civilian customers has long been another specialty at YPG.
Recently, YPG has served as an important testing facility for development of the MQ-9B Sky Guardian unmanned aircraft, which two years ago set an endurance record by flying 48.2 hours in YPG's restricted airspace.
"A lot of the history is based on the Predator B," said Chris Dusseault, program senior director. "It's a re-design where needed, but a lot of things have worked very well from our other program."
Perhaps the MQ-9B's most revolutionary feature is its full compliance with FAA regulations that allow aircraft to fly in the world's crowded civilian air space. It is scalable to fit a multitude of possible mission sets, and can be outfitted with various payloads, cameras, radars, and even weapons based on a given customer's needs.
As for its application in combat, the craft and its new ground control station has dramatically streamlined its ability to be deployed overseas. Whereas current ground control stations are bulky, vehicle-mounted cabs that need a prime mover to transport and a support crew to man, the Sky Guardian is controlled by a highly portable laptop computer, cutting the ground crew down to more than three individuals. In theater, the system can be started up via a touchscreen laptop and be flown by a pilot located hundreds or thousands of miles away. It also has automatic launch capability.
When it comes to pre-flight checks, the new platform needs far fewer than earlier aircraft, which translated to even greater ease and efficiency. Rather than the typical 30 to 45 minutes to get an aircraft running, pre- flight checks now take less than 15 minutes.
Testers are excited about the platform's future applications for both military and civilian use.
"This airplane and this ground control station are the perfect bridge for us to get operational aircraft into the national airspace system," said Tim Just, pilot. "The man-machine interface of this new system are very simple and it takes less time to get the aircraft powered up and in the air. It is a delightful airplane to fly."
YPG is the third-largest installation in area in the Department of Defense, which allows for the testing of long-range artillery projectiles and other weapon systems without fear of hitting occupied areas. Less intuitive, perhaps, is that YPG's vast size also includes nearly 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace. The proving ground seems as close to an ideal venue for UAS testing as can possibly exist. The clear, stable air and extremely dry climate where inclement weather is a rarity makes it highly coveted.
"We have great flying weather here and restricted airspace higher than the service ceiling of the airplane," said Just. "We are able to fly here 365 days a year."
YPG's unsurpassed capabilities allow for extensive testing without having to compete for runway and airspace with manned fighter jets as at other installations. Another critical bonus of testing at YPG is the presence of a wealth of other infrastructure meant for other sectors of YPG's broad test mission that can be leveraged to support UAS evaluations. YPG is home to things like technical and tactical targets, as well as generator and combined maintenance shops, all of which are useful for UAS testing. The Sky Guardian's testers also give high marks to YPG's spectrum management office, which ensures they have the frequencies they need for their specialized testing: YPG has nearly 600 permanent radio frequencies assigned to it, and uses more than 1,000 temporary ones in a given month.
"YPG is a fantastic place," said Ken Ehresman, program manager. "YPG gives us access to not only restricted airspace, but ranges and capabilities that help us test. We have world class support here from a very motivated team on the YPG side."
General Atomics expects to continue testing here for the foreseeable future, and to expand the amount of aviation testing they conduct here. This is largely due to the support efforts of the YPG workforce, officials add.
"They are very flexible," Ehresman said. "We came here two years ago not knowing what to expect or how long we would be here. The support has been so professional that we built a hangar here with the intention of staying longer and bringing more test programs here--we've been doing a lot and intend to do more."