The U.S. Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) Office awarded Lockheed Martin a $25 million contract to support the next phase of the service’s Palletized Munitions Experimentation Campaign.
The fourth phase includes a system-level demonstration in 2021 and continues to assess the potential to deliver large volumes of air-launched weapons via airlifters.
«Despite the Palletized Munitions program being relatively new, it’s moving very quickly», said Scott Callaway, Lockheed Martin Advanced Strike Systems director. «The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) contracting and Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) offices, and Lockheed Martin teams established this new contract in a record time of 30 days, supporting faster prototyping and a shorter timeline to bring this advanced capability to the warfighter in the field».
Initial studies show that airlifters have the potential to deploy large quantities of Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missiles, providing a significant increase in long-range standoff scale and complementing traditional strike and bomber aircrafts. This innovative approach enables warfighters to launch offensive operations from a greater number of airfields and engage a larger number of near-peer adversarial targets.
The overall goal of the experimentation is to develop a modular system to deliver air-launched weapons, leveraging standard airdrop procedures and operations. The system will have the ability to be rolled on and off multiple types of aircraft, including the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130.
Phase I successfully accomplished five high-altitude airdrops from an MC-130J Super Hercules (manufactured by Lockheed Martin) and a C-17 Globemaster III earlier this year using simulated weapons. During this effort, the U.S. Air Force tested the suitability of launching JASSM-ERs from an airlifter. JASSM is a long-range, conventional, air-to-ground, precision standoff missile for the U.S. and allied forces designed to destroy high-value, well-defended, fixed and relocatable targets.
The 416th Flight Test Squadron recently completed a round of tests of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s «Gray Wolf» prototype cruise missile at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Gray Wolf is a DoD-directed prototype production and demonstration of low-cost, subsonic and networked collaborative cruise missiles. The missiles are designed to launch in a swarm to target enemy integrated air defense threats.
«Gray Wolf is a science & technology demonstration effort, intended as a proof of concept program», said Conor Most, 416th FLTS Flight Test Engineer. «AFRL serves as the System Program Office (SPO) for the weapon and developed the original request for proposal».
The missiles offer a stand-off solution for the warfighter through its variable payload capability. Earlier this year, the Gray Wolf’s TDI-J85 engine completed a successful flight test campaign culminating in multiple inflight windmill starts and operation at high altitude.
The program has already reached certain test milestones: Electromagnetic Interference & Compatibility (EMIC) and a «captive carry» flight. A live release test at the Naval Air Station Point Mugu Sea Test Range is scheduled later this summer.
«The EMIC check is ground check to confirm the missile is okay to fly on our specific test aircraft», Most explained. «A captive-carry flight is the first flight with the weapon; the goal is to rehearse the weapon flight profile and gather critical state/environmental data about the weapon».
Most added that the importance of successfully conducting physical tests, as opposed to laboratory-simulated, provides the Gray Wolf team with invaluable critical data.
«Getting the weapon airborne and gathering data is crucial to the development for a new weapon system like this», Most said. «With just one captive carry flight, the team learned more than in weeks or months of laboratory testing. Modeling and simulation go a long way to helping you predict how a new weapon will behave, but they will never replace actually putting the weapon on an aircraft and observing how it actually behaves in a real-world environment».
Conducting physical flight tests is critical to mission success, and the Gray Wolf test team faced challenges amidst COVID-19 restrictions as different portions of the test team were located throughout the country. Besides the test team at Edwards, the Gray Wolf tests included personnel from AFRL, Point Mugu, and others throughout the Air Force Test Center enterprise, namely at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
«Key support from AFRL and AFTC leadership enabled the missions to take place», said Captain Adam Corley, AFRL Gray Wolf Program Manager. «These tests overcame, and were accomplished, during the COVID-19 posture. Collaboration between Eglin, Edwards, and the Point Mugu Sea Range made these flight tests possible. Through close partnership, we were able to fly on the sea range and stream live feeds to Edwards and Eglin control rooms overcoming the travel ban issue and allowing key personnel to participate in the flight tests».
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket carrying the United States Space Force-7 (USSF-7) mission for the U.S. Space Force lifted off on May 17, 9:14 a.m. EDT, from Space Launch Complex-41. This marks the 84th successful launch of an Atlas V rocket, 139th launch for ULA, the second launch for the U.S. Space Force and the sixth flight of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6).
«The success of this mission resulted from collaboration with our customer while working through challenging, and ever changing, health and safety conditions», said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs. «We were honored to partner with the U.S. Space Force to dedicate this mission to first responders, front-line workers, and those affected by COVID-19. It is truly a unique time in our history and I want to thank the entire team for their continued dedication and focus on mission success».
Along with OTV-6, this mission deployed FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to conduct experiments on orbit. The mission also carried two NASA experiments, including a material sample plate to determine the results of radiation and other space effects on various materials, and an experiment which will assess space effects on seeds used to grow food. Another experiment sponsored by the Naval Research Laboratory will examine the ability to transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could be transmitted to the ground.
This mission launched aboard an Atlas V 501 configuration rocket that included a 5-meter-diameter payload fairing. The Atlas booster was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.
ULA’s next launch is NASA’s Mars 2020 mission carrying the Perseverance rover on an Atlas V rocket. The launch is scheduled for July 17 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
To date ULA has a track record of 100% mission success with 139 successful launches.
With more than a century of combined heritage, ULA is the world’s most experienced and reliable launch service provider. ULA has successfully launched more than 135 missions to orbit that provide Earth observation capabilities, enable global communications, unlock the mysteries of our solar system, and support life-saving technology.
The Emerging Technology Combined Test Force (ET-CTF) successfully completed flight tests on its newest autonomous aircraft test bed last month at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
The flight tests are in support of the Skyborg project with the goal to ultimately provide an autonomous software testing package.
«We are doing function check flights of the BVM (Bob Violett Models) ‘Renegade’ commercial, off-the-shelf, turbine-powered jet aircraft», said Captain Steve DiMaio, ET-CTF, 412th Test Wing. «It is in support of the Skyborg test program testing autonomy. Currently, today we are just doing a build-up approach of expanding the envelope of the airplane, making sure all of our tunes on our autopilot are correct».
The Skyborg program is a developing software tool spearheaded by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) that will allow engineers and researchers to develop autonomous capabilities. AFRL plans to have Skyborg as an Early Operational Capability as early as 2023. The ET-CTF is producing software for testing autonomous aircraft and to make them safer.
Variations of artificial intelligence such as the Automatic Ground and Air Collision Avoidance Systems have been proven to have save lives and aircraft.
The Renegade aircraft falls under the Group 3 classification of unmanned aerial systems as prescribed by the Department of Defense. This classification is for Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) jets weighing more than 55 lbs./25 kg but less than 1,320 lbs./599 kg. The jet can also fly at speeds of 200 knots, or around 230 mph/370 km/h.
«It’s very similar to the previous aircraft that we used, which was called a Shockwave», DiMaio said. «This is slightly bigger; carry a little more gas (with) a bigger engine, not necessarily faster, but it is a great test bed because we have a larger payload capacity. We also have longer flight time and added capability just by that larger capacity inside».
The ET-CTF team, along with their mission partners, produce software for their test beds that push flight safety envelopes to help develop test safety procedures and requirements in the development of the Skyborg program. Engineers are able to install software updates to the aircraft and then study its flight characteristics and behavior to ensure the computer codes produce no harm to the jet and does as it is intended.
The ET-CTF team completed at total of five test flight missions with the Renegade in March, however because of recent minimum manning postures due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, the team has had to rework their upcoming test missions, said John Wilson, ET-CTF Deputy Director.
«The COVID HPCON (Health Protection Condtion) limitations are impacting the next flight of the Renegade», Wilson said. «There are plans to continue to fly the Renegade in the future, but the flights are on hold due to COVID and our current minimum manning posture».
Wilson explained that while the ET-CTF’s mission partners may have travel limitations, ET-CTF is working with them for future flight tests, and in the meantime, the unit is working on furthering their own skill sets.
«There may be opportunity for continued training as ET CTF works to maintain pilot currency», he said.
The recently completed flight testing in March was a success for the ET-CTF and the Skyborg program according to Lieutenant Colonel David Aparicio, ET-CTF Director. It proved the viability of a surrogate small UAS aircraft at a higher speed regime, greater endurance, and a larger payload capacity than previous test campaigns.
«As the 412th Test Wing continues to seek ways to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy, affordable high-speed surrogate aircraft like the Renegade are invaluable to lowering the risk to future autonomy research and development programs», he said.
Despite the current travel restrictions and COVID-19 health protection conditions, ET-CTF and its mission partners are continuing to make advances in autonomy flight test. ET-CTF continues to develop test plans and procedures remotely with its team of operators and engineers. Additionally, ET-CTF developed some innovative procedures to protect its team while providing an ever-ready test capability to support the Warfighter, Aparicio added.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), along with partner Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, Inc., completed the successful fourth flight test of the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) demonstrator January 23, 2020, at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona.
During the test event, the Valkyrie demonstrator’s flight successfully met all of the test objectives, and the envelope was expanded beyond prior tests before safely landing in the Arizona desert. According to AFRL XQ-58A Valkyrie Program Manager Michael Wipperman, flying at higher altitude allowed researchers to gather data in an operational environment more representative of real-world flight conditions.
«Flying at this altitude helped us gather important data such as vehicle response to temperature and vibration, which will prepare us as we move toward our next flight test», said Wipperman.
This test event represents a return-to-flight for the XQ-58A Valkyrie, which experienced a mishap upon landing after a successful 90-minute flight in October 2019. Following a Safety Investigation Board probe into the mishap, Wipperman says the resulting information was outbriefed to the convening authority, and the recommendations were taken and approved to ensure the success of this latest test.
«We’re very pleased with the outcome of this fourth flight test», said Wipperman. «We were able to show recovery for a successful flight at even higher altitudes. Given that we have overcome these challenges, we have confidence that the aircraft can continue its progression into flying in more representative conditions».
Developed as part of AFRL’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology portfolio, the XQ-58A Valkyrie is designed to be a runway-independent, reusable unmanned air vehicle capable of a broad range of operational missions. The XQ-58A Valkyrie was developed through low cost procurement and is designed to be significantly less expensive to operate than traditional piloted or unpiloted vehicles, while capable of achieving the same critical missions. Taking only 2.5 years from contract award to first flight, it is the first example of a class of unmanned air vehicles developed through this time-saving process, which seeks to break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft.
A total of five flights are planned for the XQ-58A Valkyrie, with objectives that include evaluating system functionality, aerodynamic performance, and launch and recovery systems. The fifth flight, scheduled for later this year, will be a capability demonstration showcasing the ability of the vehicle to support operational needs.
The Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) X-60A program recently achieved a key developmental milestone with the completion of integrated vehicle propulsion system verification ground testing.
The X-60A is an air-launched rocket designed for hypersonic flight research. It is being developed by Generation Orbit Launch Services under an AFRL Small Business Innovation Research contract. The goal of the X-60A program is to provide affordable and routine access to relevant hypersonic flight conditions for technology maturation. This test included both cold-flow and hot-fire testing with the Hadley liquid rocket engine developed by Ursa Major Technologies. Flight-like hardware was tested using flight-like operational procedures. The test runs covered full-duration burns, engine gimbaling for thrust vector control, and system throttling.
«This test series was a critical step in reducing risk and gathering necessary system integration data in preparation for our upcoming flight tests», said Barry Hellman, AFRL X-60A program manager. «When we go to flight later this year, we hope to demonstrate the capability of the X-60A to provide affordable access to hypersonic flight conditions, which will position AFRL to deliver an innovative test capability for the Air Force and other DoD organizations».
X-60A is a single-stage liquid rocket primarily designed for hypersonic flight research and is launched from a modified business jet carrier aircraft. It is capable of testing a wide range of hypersonic technologies including airbreathing propulsion, advanced materials and hypersonic vehicle subsystems. The vehicle propulsion system utilizes liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants. The system is designed to provide affordable and regular access to high dynamic pressure flight conditions above Mach 5.
During the upcoming flight tests based out of Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida, the X-60A will fly at relevant conditions necessary for technology maturation. Data will be collected to validate the overall vehicle design functionality as well as performance predictions.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) recently completed the successful flight demonstration of a game-changing camber morphing wing technology that could significantly increase aircraft range and performance.
The AFRL-developed Variable Camber Compliant Wing (VCCW) is capable of changing shape to improve aerodynamic performance and morph itself to various flight conditions and missions. Wing camber, or the shape of a wing surface, is a fundamental element of aerodynamic flight. Conventional wings with discrete hinged control surfaces have greater drag, whereas wings with a smooth camber are efficient and maneuverable. The ability to morph the wing according to aerodynamic conditions would give an aircraft increased lift when needed without a weight penalty – typically at takeoff and landing – and greater fuel-efficiency and maneuverability when in flight.
This flight experiment demonstrated the second iteration of the VCCW, a smaller, more compact version than the first, which was used primarily in wind tunnel experiments. This eight-foot wing was designed to be flown on a commercial-off-the-shelf remotely controlled aircraft, simulating an unmanned air vehicle. During the series of flights, held in September and October 2019, the wing was flown at low speeds, completing a number of maneuvers and demonstrating active shape control for optimized drag reduction and increased agility.
The VCCW features a smooth and continuous skin construction, which not only reduces noise by eliminating sharp surfaces and gaps, but improves aerodynamic performance as well. According to Doctor James Joo, AFRL Advanced Structural Concepts team lead and VCCW program manager, the improved aerodynamics translates into potentially significant fuel savings.
«Early estimates show VCCW technology saving aircraft fuel consumption by 10 percent», said Joo. «This was one of our main goals, and it fits the Air Force’s efforts to reduce overall energy costs».
Jared Neely, AFRL research engineer and designer of the morphing wing, called this demonstration an important step in advancing flexible wing technology for warfighter use: «The success of this demonstration has given us confidence that this technology can be leveraged to higher-class vehicles, to take advantage of the many benefits this technology can truly offer».
Joo added that although other research organizations have explored the morphing camber concept, AFRL’s version is unique because it is a true flexible wing without any discrete control surfaces to assist in takeoff and landing. This seamless surface can increase overall range, making it ideal for a variety of long-range platforms. He says the team will continue to refine the concept and look into additional ways it can benefit existing aircraft.
«We are excited about the success of this demonstration», said Joo. «We are continuing to explore the opportunities that this technology can offer for future Air Force aircraft development».
With small unmanned aircraft systems – frequently called drones, becoming more common every day, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB), New Mexico, has developed a counter-swarm high power weapon that should cause those with nefarious intentions of using drones against United States forces at U.S. military installations at home or overseas to think twice about such actions.
AFRL exhibited the technology, called the Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR), at the 2019 Air Force Association Air, Space, and Cyber Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. and Virginia, September 16-18.
Although AFRL’s THOR is not a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder and lightning, it is a counter-swarm electromagnetic weapon that AFRL developed for airbase defense. The system provides non-kinetic defeat of multiple targets. It operates from ground power and uses energy to disable drones.
«THOR is essentially a high-powered electromagnetic source that we put together to specifically defeat drones», said Stephen Langdon, chief of the High-Powered Microwave Technologies Branch of AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate.
A demonstration system has been built and tested on military test ranges near Kirtland AFB where it has successfully engaged multiple targets. Further testing against a larger set of drone types in swarming configurations is being planned.
THOR stores completely in a 20-foot/6-meter transport container, which can easily be transported in a C-130 Hercules aircraft. The system can be set up within three hours and has a user interface designed to require very little user training. The technology, which cost roughly $15 million to develop, uses high power electromagnetics to counter electronic effect. When a target is identified, the silent weapon discharges with nearly instantaneous impact.
Rather than being used just as harmless hobby systems, drones can also be employed as weapons intended to cause harm at long standoff ranges. As they become more common and technically mature, it is important that there be a safe way to protect air bases against these threats.
With much of the necessary basic research previously completed at AFRL, THOR was rapidly developed and tested in 18 months.
Although there are other drone defensive systems available, including guns, nets and laser systems, THOR looks to extend the engagement range to effect and decrease the engagement time over these other deterrent devices.
Langdon said the THOR team hopes to transfer the technology to a System Program Office soon in order to get it into the hands of U.S. warfighters as soon as possible.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DZYNE Technologies Incorporated successfully completed a two-hour initial flight of a revolutionary Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program called ROBOpilot August 9 at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
«This flight test is a testament to AFRL’s ability to rapidly innovate technology from concept to application in a safe build up approach while still maintaining low cost and short timelines», said Major General William Cooley, AFRL Commander.
«Imagine being able to rapidly and affordably convert a general aviation aircraft, like a Cessna or Piper, into an unmanned aerial vehicle, having it fly a mission autonomously, and then returning it back to its original manned configuration», said Doctor Alok Das, Senior Scientist with AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation (CRI). «All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft».
As the vision for AFRL’s CRI Small Business Innovative Research project with DZYNE Technologies of Irvine, California, ROBOpilot interacts with an aircraft the same way as a human pilot would.
For example, the system «grabs» the yoke, pushes on the rudders and brakes, controls the throttle, flips the appropriate switches and reads the dashboard gauges the same way a pilot does. At the same time, the system uses sensors, like GPS and an Inertial Measurement Unit, for situational awareness and information gathering. A computer analyzes these details to make decisions on how to best control the flight.
ROBOpilot also boasts a simple installation process. Users remove the pilot’s seat and install a frame in its place, which contains all the equipment necessary to control the aircraft including actuators, electronics, cameras, power systems and a robotic arm.
Das explains that this non-invasive approach to robotically piloted aircraft leverages existing commercial technology and components. ROBOpilot incorporates many subsystems and lessons learned from previous AFRL and DZYNE Technology aircraft conversion programs.
«ROBOpilot offers the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles», Das said.
AFRL developed the system using a Direct to Phase II SBIR contract. During the past year, AFRL and DZYNE designed, built and tested ROBOpilot. Engineers demonstrated the initial concept in a RedBird FMX simulator, a full motion, feature-rich advanced aviation training device. ROBOpilot successfully completed simulated autonomous takeoffs, mission navigation and landings in both nominal and off-nominal conditions in this Federal Aviation Administration-certified trainer.
As an early adopter of creating disruptive innovation through paradigm shifts, AFRL established the Center for Rapid Innovation in 2006 to streamline AFRL’s application of new and existing technologies to address dynamic changes in air, space, ground, and cyber battlespaces and solve evolving and urgent operational challenges. The execution of this unique process uses diverse subject matter expertise and a collaborative government-industry technical and management capability to rapidly develop, test and deploy innovative prototype solutions for dynamic operational environments.
CRI routinely uses the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to identify both disruptive technology and innovative engineering talent for its projects. Working with teams of innovative small businesses, CRI has demonstrated numerous operational successes such as back-packable, precision strike platforms for high-value fleeting targets; counter-Improvised Explosive Device (IED); counter drone capabilities; and secure on-the-move communications. Several efforts have even transitioned to Air Force Programs of Record.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development.
An Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Air Force Test Center ground test team set a record for the highest thrust produced by an air-breathing hypersonic engine in Air Force history.
«AFRL, in conjunction with Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC) and Northrop Grumman, achieved over 13,000 pounds/5,897 kg of thrust from a scramjet engine during testing at Arnold Air Force Base», said Todd Barhorst, AFRL aerospace engineer and lead for the Medium Scale Critical Components program.
The 18-foot-long/5.5-meter-long Northrop Grumman engine endured a half hour of accumulated combustion time during the nine months of testing.
«The series of tests, ran in conjunction with AEDC and AFRL, on this fighter-engine sized scramjet was truly remarkable», said Pat Nolan, vice president, missile products, Northrop Grumman. «The scramjet successfully ran across a range of hypersonic Mach numbers for unprecedented run times, demonstrating that our technology is leading the way in delivering large scale hypersonic platforms to our warfighters».
«The plan for a larger and faster hypersonic air breathing engine was established 10 years ago during the X-51 test program, as the Air Force recognized the need to push the boundaries of hypersonic research», Barhorst said. «A new engine with 10-times the flow of the X-51 would allow for a new class of scramjet vehicles».
An evaluation of the nation’s test facilities concluded that none could test an engine at this large of a scale in a thermally-relevant environment. To address the issue, AEDC’s Aerodynamic and Propulsion Test Unit facility underwent a two-year upgrade to enable large-scale scramjet combustor tests over the required range of test conditions. The AEDC team also successfully leveraged technology developed by CFD Research Corporation under the Small Business Innovative Research program. This technology proved crucial in achieving most of the required test conditions.
«Our collective team has worked hard over the past few years to get to where we are today», said Sean Smith, lead for the AEDC Hypersonic Systems Combined Test Force ground test team. «We’ve encountered numerous challenges along the way that we’ve been able to overcome thanks to the dedication and creativity of the team. We’ve learned quite a bit, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. These groundbreaking tests will lead the way for future hypersonic vehicles for a range of missions».
«After years of hard work, performing analysis and getting hardware ready, it was a great sense of fulfillment completing the first successful test of the world’s largest hydrocarbon fueled scramjet», added Barhorst.