Category Archives: Unmanned Systems

24-hour mission

A NATO RQ-4D Phoenix took off towards the Black Sea and returned 24-hours later to home air base in Sigonella, Italy on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.

RQ-4D Phoenix
A NATO RQ-4D Phoenix took off towards the Black Sea and returned 24-hours later to home air base in Sigonella, Italy on Tuesday, November 16, 2021 (Photo courtesy of NATO AGS Force)

This important step to Full Operating Capability for the NATO Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) Force has been successfully achieved. The AGS team conducted its first mission of 24-hour duration demonstrating the team’s continuous efforts in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and therefore enhancing a vital Allied capability.

«I am very proud of the teamwork accomplished», said Brigadier General Houston Cantwell, Commander of the NATO AGS Force. «With this 24-hour mission, we have proven that we are on the right track to Full Operational Capability and are a valuable asset to NATO».

The challenge of this long mission focused on the airmen and soldiers operating the system; in particular their ability to hand over smoothly between shifts. The sensor operators, who are responsible for controlling the Synthetic Aperture radar, were also changed at the same time as the pilots.

In order for the unmanned aircraft to fly its mission safely, it is not only necessary to have well-trained pilots who are replaced after a certain period of time, but also the IT specialists who ensure that the satellite and communication link is guaranteed between the Main Operation Base in Sigonella and the NATO RQ-4D Phoenix.

At present, the multinational NATO AGS Force comprised of approximately 375 personnel from 24 nations.

Flight Testing

Boeing Australia has expanded its flight-test program of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, with two aircraft successfully completing separate flight missions at the Woomera Range Complex recently.

Loyal Wingman
Loyal Wingman test flights continue to expand the flight envelope (Boeing Photo)

The first Loyal Wingman aircraft developed with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) demonstrated a range of key characteristics during the test flights to continue to expand the flight envelope. A second aircraft also successfully completed its first flight mission.

«It is so exciting seeing two aircraft in the air as the Loyal Wingman continues to excel in the flight-test program», said Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Cath Roberts, RAAF Head of Air Force Capability. «This opens up significant capability agility for Air Force, particularly with features such as the reconfigurable nose».

«We’re heavily engaged in the payload development and the element of surprise that it gives us in the battlespace. You never really know what’s in the nose», said AVM Roberts.

Throughout the flight-test missions, the teams gathered aircraft performance data that will be used to inform and refine the digital twin of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, with the view to accelerate the aircraft’s development where possible. The digital twin models the system’s entire lifecycle, from design and development to production and sustainment, and contributes to speed and first-time quality.

«We’re in a steady rhythm of flight testing on the way to mission and operational testing, enabling Boeing Australia, RAAF and our Australian industry team of more than 35 companies to progressively advance the flight characteristics and capabilities of the uncrewed teaming system», said Glen Ferguson, director of Boeing Airpower Teaming System – Australia and International. «I’d like to extend my thanks to our capability partner BAE Systems Australia, and to RUAG Australia for their specific roles in this latest test block».

The flight tests of aircraft one included the first time the landing gear was raised and engaged. RUAG Australia supplied the landing gear systems to the aircraft, and BAE Systems Australia was integral in the design, supply and support of the flight control and navigation systems tested as part of the flights.

«This is a great achievement for homegrown, Australian autonomous capabilities», said BAE Systems Australia CEO Gabby Costigan. «Our partnership underpins a shared commitment to develop sovereign technologies and deliver a cutting-edge program for the nation’s defence».

The first batch of Loyal Wingman aircraft are serving as the foundation for the Boeing Airpower Teaming System being developed for various global defence customers. The aircraft will fly alongside other platforms, using artificial intelligence to team with existing crewed and uncrewed assets to complement mission capabilities.

Gremlin Air Vehicles

An unmanned air vehicle demonstrated successful airborne recovery during the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Gremlins program’s latest flight test deployment last month. During the deployment, two X-61 Gremlin Air Vehicles (GAV) successfully validated all autonomous formation flying positions and safety features before one GAV ultimately demonstrated airborne recovery to a C-130 Hercules.

X-61 Gremlin Air Vehicles (GAV)
Gremlins Air Vehicle during a test at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, October 2021

«This recovery was the culmination of years of hard work and demonstrates the feasibility of safe, reliable airborne recovery», said Lieutenant Colonel Paul Calhoun, program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. «Such a capability will likely prove to be critical for future distributed air operations».

During the final experiment, the team refurbished an X-61 vehicle and conducted a second flight within 24 working-hours. In addition, many hours of data were collected over four flights including air vehicle performance, aerodynamic interactions between the recovery bullet and GAV, and contact dynamics for airborne retrieval. Unfortunately, one GAV was destroyed during the flight tests.

«Airborne recovery is complex», said Calhoun. «We will take some time to enjoy the success of this deployment, then get back to work further analyzing the data and determining next steps for the Gremlins technology».

Safe, effective, and reliable air recoveries promise to dramatically expand the range and potential uses of unmanned air vehicles in conflict situations. The GAVs can be equipped with a variety of sensors and other mission-specific payloads. They can also be launched from various types of military aircraft, keeping manned platforms safely beyond the range of adversary defenses. After air retrieval, the GAVs can be refurbished by ground crews to prepare them for another mission within 24 hours.

Dynetics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Leidos, is developing the Gremlin vehicles.

DARPA Gremlins Program Demonstrates Airborne Recovery

Off-Board Sensing Station

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) received a $17.8 million award from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to design and develop an unmanned Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) aircraft. AFRL is developing an open architecture concept Autonomous Collaborative Platform (ACP) to achieve its goals of rapid time-to-market and low acquisition cost, while extending and enhancing the sensing volume of manned platforms.

Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS)
GA-ASI Awarded OBSS Contract from AFRL

«We’re excited to continue working on this project with AFRL», said Chris Seat, senior vice president of Special Programs for GA-ASI. «Our experience in developing and delivering the most cost-effective and forward-looking UAS solutions puts GA-ASI in a great position to deliver the right ACP to meet our customer’s requirements».

The award covers the next 12 months as the base effort, and if the option is exercised, GA-ASI will spend the following 15 months manufacturing and flight demonstrating the aircraft with the award potentially growing to a total of $49 million.

Autonomous Teaming

The Skyborg team conducted a multi-hour flight test on October 26 of the Skyborg Autonomy Core System (ACS) aboard two General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger tactical unmanned vehicles during the Orange Flag (OF) 21-3 Large Force Test Event at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California.

MQ-20 Avenger
Two General Atomics MQ-20 Avengers fly collaborative unmanned aircraft teaming experiments during Edwards Air Force Base’s Orange Flag 21-3 (Photo courtesy of General Atomics)

Skyborg is focused on demonstrating an open, modular, government-owned ACS that can autonomously aviate, navigate, and communicate, and eventually integrate other advanced capabilities.

This experimentation event built upon the basic flight autonomy behaviors demonstrated at OF 21-2. The flight demonstrated matured capabilities of the ACS that enabled two MQ-20s to fly autonomously while communicating with each other to ensure coordinated flight. Additionally, the aircraft responded to navigational commands, stayed within specified geo-fences, and maintained flight envelopes. Both aircraft were monitored from a ground command and control station.

The test community, especially the 412th Test Wing, has been instrumental in helping to integrate government-owned autonomy into operational test events. These test events facilitate trust between the warfighter and autonomous technologies to help inform future operational use cases.

«These operational experimentation tests continue to demonstrate emerging technologies and helps the enterprise posture to transition this capability to the warfighter while preparing for the high-end fight», said Brigadier General Dale White, Program Executive Officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.

«We have made tremendous progress in transforming ideas to reality in a short time frame. The team has continued the full court press to mature a Government-owned autonomy core and develop the foundational technologies for a future capability», said Major General Heather Pringle, Air Force Research Laboratory commander.

«Large force testing of autonomous unmanned-unmanned teaming is the natural evolution to fielding warfighter capability for the future fight», said Brigadier General Matthew Higer, 412th Test Wing commander at Edwards AFB, California.

Future Skyborg experimentation events will explore direct manned-unmanned teaming between manned aircraft and multiple ACS-controlled unmanned aircraft.

Background: The Skyborg Vanguard team is a unique relationship that pairs Major General Heather Pringle, Commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory as the Skyborg Technology Executive Officer (TEO) and Brigadier General Dale White, Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft as the Skyborg PEO. The Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force (ET-CTF), under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Adam Brooks, serves as the executing agent for these test missions at the 412th Test Wing, Commanded by Brigadier General Matthew Higer at Edwards AFB.

Jet-powered Banshee

HMS Prince of Wales (R09) has launched drones from her flight deck as the Royal Navy begins exploring the use of crewless technology on the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

QinetiQ Banshee Jet 80+
Drones launched from HMS Prince of Wales (R09) during landmark demonstration

Fixed-wing drones – called the QinetiQ Banshee Jet 80+ – flew from the carrier’s vast flight deck to assess how they might be used to train personnel in defending against ever-more-capable fast jets and missiles.

The jet-powered Banshee, which looks like a mini fighter aircraft, can soar to 25,000 feet/7,620 m, skim just above the waves, and flies at speeds up to 400 knots (around 460 mph/740 km/h).

It is hard to detect on radar, giving it all the likeness of an incoming missile – making it a realistic adversary for sailors to train in countering aerial threats.

These drones could eventually be carried by Royal Navy warships and provide operational training to task groups wherever they might be in the world, allowing them to conduct air defence exercises on demand to test reactions and hone responses.

And the Banshee’s carrying capacity means the Royal Navy can use it for testing future sensors, weaponry and radio equipment.

HMS Prince of Wales (R09) is the first Royal Navy ship to carry these drones for demonstration purposes, as she moves towards being fully operational.

The Banshee flights represent the first step for the Royal Navy in exploring how crewless tech could be operated from the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in the future.

«There is a real need for a low-cost drone such as the Banshee that can replicate a range of the threats in the skies and provide a test bed for future payloads», said Commander Rob Taylor, lead for Royal Navy Air Test and Evaluation. «The key to this is that a warship can carry this drone with it on operations, launch it and use it to keep personnel razor-sharp in countering threats from above. The ability to adapt the payload for differing tasks is also crucial to provide value for money and interoperability across the fleet».

The demonstration with HMS Prince of Wales (R09) looked at how the drone and associated support equipment, including launcher, can be integrated within a busy ship and flight deck.

It also looked at installing sub-systems on board and procedures for moving and setting up the drone and kit on the flight deck, which has been a hive of activity as the ship trains with F-35B Lightning II jets and participates in the largest military exercise in the UK, Joint Warrior, off the Scottish coast.

Flight Test Engineers and operators from QinetiQ, which owns and operates the Banshee, flew three of the air vehicles from the drone’s launcher on the Hebrides range off the northwest coast of Scotland.

The Banshee launched from the ship and recovered to land via parachute.

The demonstration is showcasing just one of the options as part of Royal Navy Develop Directorate’s Project Vampire, which is looking at lightweight, fixed-wing carrier-borne crewless autonomous systems.

The project forms part of a series of demonstrations that will help define Royal Navy aviation of the future through the Future Maritime Aviation Force, which looks at how the Fleet Air Arm will operate in the years to come.

«It aims to capitalise on the best that industry has to offer working alongside established aviation systems already used across the globe», added Commander Taylor. «The programme will look at rotary wing and fixed wing drones to fulfil a number of tasks to increase mass on the carriers and allow crewed aircraft to maximise their capacity. The Banshee demonstration is just the start of the un-crewed autonomous systems programme of work for the Royal Navy. This is an extremely exciting time for maritime aviation and the future of the Fleet Air Arm».

Medium Lift UAV

Kaman Corporation on September 21, 2021 unveiled the KARGO Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the newest addition to its family of purpose-built, autonomous unmanned systems designed to be the new standard for expeditionary logistics. Built with the U.S. Armed Forces future operating concepts in mind, the KARGO UAV offers a rugged design for easy transport and deployment. The system’s compact form-factor fits in a standard shipping container and is designed to be unloaded and operated by as few as two people.

KARGO UAV
Kaman Unveils New Medium Lift UAV: the KARGO UAV is a New Solution for Expeditionary Logistics

«The Kaman KARGO UAV is the only system of its class that is purpose-built to provide deployed Marines, Sailors, Airmen, Soldiers, and Coast Guard autonomous resupply in the lethal, fluid combat environment that future military operations will entail or for regular logistics missions. Our deployed service men and woman have persistent logistics challenges that we are answering with this reliable, maintainable and affordable solution», said Ian Walsh, CEO of Kaman Corporation.

Designed to provide cost-effective cargo hauling in its conformal pod or external sling load configuration, the KARGO UAV will self-deploy with no payload up to 523 nautical miles/602 miles/968.6 km with max lifting capacity of 800 lbs./363 kg. This size and class vehicle also has multiple commercial applications and is part of a growth strategy involving a family of purpose built KARGO vehicles for multiple and repeatable missions.

Over the past six months, flight development testing of a scaled KARGO UAV demonstrator has been completed to prove out the air vehicle design, and flight-testing of a full-scale autonomous vehicle is planned for 2022. The KARGO UAV leverages commercial off-the-shelf components as well as thousands of hours of automated and autonomous flight data from Kaman’s K-MAX TITAN program, to reduce schedule and technical risk.

Kaman selected Near Earth Autonomy as a partner on the pilot KARGO UAV program. Leveraging ongoing and concurrent collaboration between the two companies on the U.S. Marines Corps K-MAX TITAN UAS, Near Earth will provide obstacle avoidance and other technologies such as precision landing, sense and avoid, and navigation in a GPS-denied environment.

«We are extremely excited to provide this advanced, game-changing technology to the market and leverage Kaman’s 75 years as a pioneer in aerospace and defense. Our vision is to propel our customers forward by imagining and delivering highly engineered products that solve our customer’s toughest problems», stated Darlene Smith, President of Kaman Air Vehicles.

Mission with F-35C

The U.S. Navy and Boeing have used the MQ-25TM T1 test asset to refuel a U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II fighter jet for the first time, once again demonstrating the aircraft’s ability to achieve its primary aerial refueling mission.

MQ-25 Stingray
Boeing’s MQ-25 T1 test asset transfers fuel to a U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II fighter jet Sept. 13 during a flight-test mission. The U.S. Navy and Boeing have conducted three refueling flights in the past three months, including an F/A-18 Super Hornet and E-2D Hawkeye (Kevin Flynn photo)

This was the third refueling mission for the Boeing-owned test asset in just over three months, advancing the test program for the U.S. Navy’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft. T1 refueled an F/A-18 Super Hornet in June and an E-2D Hawkeye in August.

«Every test flight with another Type/Model/Series aircraft gets us one step closer to rapidly delivering a fully mission-capable MQ-25 Stingray to the fleet», said Captain Chad Reed, the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program manager. «Stingray’s unmatched refueling capability is going to increase the U.S. Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the Carrier Strike Group commanders».

During a test flight September 13, an F-35C Lightning II test pilot from the U.S. Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) conducted a successful wake survey behind T1 to ensure performance and stability before making contact with T1’s aerial refueling drogue and receiving fuel.

«This flight was yet another physical demonstration of the maturity and stability of the MQ-25 Stingray aircraft design», said Dave Bujold, Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray program director. «Thanks to this latest mission in our accelerated test program, we are confident the MQ-25 Stingray aircraft we are building right now will meet the U.S. Navy’s primary requirement – delivering fuel safely to the carrier air wing».

The T1 flight test program began in September 2019 with the aircraft’s first flight. In the following two years, the test program completed more than 120 flight hours – gathering data on everything from aircraft performance to propulsion dynamics to structural loads and flutter testing for strength and stability.

MQ-25 Stingray is benefitting from the two years of early flight test data, which has been integrated back into its digital models to strengthen the digital thread connecting aircraft design to production to test to operations and sustainment. Boeing is currently manufacturing the first two MQ-25 Stingray test aircraft.

T1 will be used to conduct a deck handling demonstration aboard a U.S. Navy carrier in the coming months to help advance the carrier integration progress.

Air Launched Effects

Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business, successfully conducted its first flight test of an Air-Launched Effects (ALE) drone based on the company’s Coyote uncrewed aircraft system design. The ALE air vehicle design meets the U.S. Army’s defined specifications for size, weight and power requirements for the Future Vertical Lift program.

Air Launched Effects (ALE)
An Area-I Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated, Unmanned System, or ALTIUS, sails through the skies at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, March 4 where the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center led a demonstration that highlighted the forward air launch of the ALTIUS (Photo by Jose Mejia-Betancourth/CCDC AvMC Technology Development Directorate)

For the test, the team demonstrated a launch of an ALE configuration intended for the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. The ALE air vehicle was ground launched from the canister, spread its wings, and accomplished stable flight. All test objectives were achieved, including low-altitude launch, wing and flight surface deployment, and stable air vehicle flight control.

«Leveraging the maturity of the Coyote design, we are well-positioned to offer the Army a reliable, sustainable and cost-effective air-launched effects air vehicle», said Tom Laliberty, vice president of Land Warfare & Air Defense at Raytheon Missiles & Defense. «Our solution’s modular open systems architecture design means it can rapidly integrate new technologies to take on advanced threats and protect aircrews in future high-end fights».

The launch was the first in a series of increasingly complex, near-term flight tests that will advance the ALE air vehicle’s design, including payload integration, and further demonstrate its performance and maturity.

Raytheon Missiles & Defense is one of three companies awarded Other Transaction Authority contracts in August 2020 to produce ALE air vehicle designs. Raytheon Technologies businesses were also chosen for projects aimed at developing ALE mission systems and payloads.

Army reconnaissance

Northrop Grumman Corporation and Martin UAV (a Shield AI company) have completed successful flight testing of a V-BAT Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) with new features including GPS-denied navigation and target designation capabilities.

V-BAT
Northrop Grumman and Martin UAV conduct flight testing of Martin UAV’s V-BAT aircraft for the US Army’s Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System effort in Camp Grafton, North Dakota

«The enhanced V-BAT offers a near zero footprint, flexible Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) capability that is based on a platform deployed operationally today, to address the U.S. Army’s Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (FTUAS) mission», said Kenn Todorov, sector vice president and general manager, global sustainment and modernization, Northrop Grumman. «The team brings more than 30 years’ experience in the production, delivery and sustainment of unmanned aircraft systems to support this critical mission today and into the future».

For FTUAS, the U.S. Army is seeking a rapidly deployable, GPS-denied navigation-capable, expeditionary VTOL system capable of persistent aerial reconnaissance for U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams, Special Forces, and Ranger battalions.

The offering is based on the industry leading Martin UAV V-BAT UAS. It is compact, lightweight, simple to operate, and can be set up, launched and recovered by a two-soldier team in confined environments. The V-BAT also is designed with sufficient payload capacity to carry a range of interchangeable payloads, including Electro-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), and Electronic Warfare (EW) payloads, depending on mission-specific requirements. Additionally, Shield AI’s recent acquisition of Martin UAV will enable rapid development of GPS-denied and autonomy capabilities for V-BAT through the future porting of Shield AI’s autonomy stack, Hivemind onto V-BAT.

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