Tag Archives: AFRL

THOR’s Hammer

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.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Tactical High Power Operational Responder developed for airbase defense (Courtesy photo/AFRL Directed Energy Directorate)

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.

ROBOpilot

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.

Air Force Research Laboratory successfully conducts first flight of ROBOpilot Unmanned Air Platform

«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.

Above Mach 4

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.

The AEDC Aerodynamic and Propulsion Test Unit at Arnold Air Force Base supports recent testing for the Air Force Research Laboratory Medium Scale Critical Components Scramjet program. The Northrop Grumman-produced engine was successfully operated at conditions above Mach 4 and has set the record for highest thrust produced by an air-breathing hypersonic engine in Air Force history (U.S. Air Force photo)

«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.

Flight Test

Northrop Grumman Corporation, in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory Sensors Directorate, demonstrated the first Software Defined Radio (SDR)-based, M-code enabled GPS receiver on production-capable hardware during a recent flight test. In real-time, the SDR acquired and tracked the modernized GPS military signal, known as M-code, during a live-sky demonstration.

Northrop Grumman Demonstrates GPS Software Defined Radio Navigation Solution During Flight Test

Additionally, Northrop Grumman achieved a security certification milestone by attaining Certification Requirements Review approval for the SDR-based GPS receiver from the GPS Directorate. This milestone constitutes a critical step on the way to fielding an M-code enabled GPS receiver that can be operated in an unclassified environment.

«Northrop Grumman’s secure software defined GPS solution provides an unprecedented level of agility and enables our customers to outpace the threat», said Vern Boyle, vice president, advanced technologies, Northrop Grumman.

Using a system-on-a-chip SDR approach, in lieu of the traditional fixed application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) design, enabled the platform to make rapid real-time field changes, an important capability in an evolving threat environment.

AgilePod

In March 2018, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s (AFLCMC) Sensors Program Office, working jointly with the AFLCMC Medium Altitude Unmanned Aerial Systems Program Office, sponsored three demonstration flights of an MQ-9 Reaper with AgilePod.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center recently sponsored three demonstration flights of an MQ-9 Reaper with AgilePod (Courtesy photo)
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center recently sponsored three demonstration flights of an MQ-9 Reaper with AgilePod (Courtesy photo)

The flights were a first for AgilePod on an Air Force major weapon system and were the result of collaboration between AFLCMC and the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL).

«These flights mark the culmination of more than two years of cutting-edge technology development led by our colleagues within the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate ManTech team, and Sensors Directorate Blue Guardian team», said Lieutenant Colonel Elwood Waddell, the advanced technologies branch chief within the Sensors Program Office.

The AgilePod program will offer a family of non-proprietary, government-owned pods of several sizes that can accommodate various missions, quickly change payloads and fit on multiple platforms.

The program uses open adaptable architecture and standards-based design to ensure maximum flexibility without proprietary constraints.

«The AgilePod program began with a desire to bring agile manufacturing practices to the ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) enterprise, culminating in a wholly government-owned, open architecture ISR capability that was both payload and platform agnostic», said Andrew Soine, a program manager with AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. «The program is really taking off, with proposed ISR and non-ISR applications that we couldn’t have foreseen only a few years ago. By owning the technical baseline, we’ve shown what can be done in relatively little time and cost when faced with emergent user needs».

«Blue Guardian’s mission is to rapidly demonstrate emerging sensor technology», added Captain Juliana Nine, a program manager with AFRL’s Sensors Directorate. «These MQ-9 flights did exactly that. The open adaptable architecture based on Open Mission Systems and common electrical/mechanical interfaces developed by the Blue Guardian team enabled the rapid re-configurability of the sensors inside the AgilePod. This capability will help the warfighter adapt their sensor payloads as the mission dictates».

U.S. Air Force ownership of the registered trademark for AgilePod is key to the program, giving the Air Force the authority to designate a given pod as an AgilePod. This cultivates a highly collaborative relationship with industry partners as the Air Force shares existing technical data under the protection of an Information Transfer Agreement.

The agreement enables the sharing of all government technical data on AgilePod while protecting government ownership and enabling industry innovation. For the demonstration, the Air Force partnered with Leidos (facilitated the open architecture sensor integration), the University of Dayton Research Institute (implemented the open software for sensor command and control), AdamWorks (built the AgilePod) and General Atomics (integrated the podded system onto the MQ-9 aircraft).

«We believe this program has the potential to both increase the velocity at which future sensor technology is made available to the warfighter, as well as to improve agility in employing various sensor modalities to fit any given scenario», said Waddell.

The Sensors Program Office continues to collaborate with AFRL and industry partners on the design and upgrade of several AgilePod variants and has plans to test various sensor modalities within AgilePod on operational platforms in the near future.

Gray Wolf

Lockheed Martin received a $110 million, five-year Phase 1 contract from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to develop and demonstrate a new low-cost cruise missile called Gray Wolf.

Gray Wolf will operate in highly contested environments, and will be capable of collaborative, networked «swarming» behaviors to address air-defense system threats
Gray Wolf will operate in highly contested environments, and will be capable of collaborative, networked «swarming» behaviors to address air-defense system threats

The Gray Wolf program seeks to develop low-cost, subsonic cruise missiles that use open architectures and modular design to allow for rapid prototyping and spiral growth capabilities. The AFRL is developing the missiles to feature networked, collaborative behaviors (swarming) to address Integrated Air Defense (IAD) system threats around the world. The Gray Wolf missile design will allow for maximum mission flexibility.

«Lockheed Martin’s concept for the Gray Wolf missile will be an affordable, counter-IAD missile that will operate efficiently in highly contested environments», said Hady Mourad, Advanced Missiles Program director for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. «Using the capabilities envisioned for later spirals, our system is being designed to maximize modularity, allowing our customer to incorporate advanced technologies such as more lethal warheads or more fuel-efficient engines, when those systems become available».

The Gray Wolf program consists of four spiral-development phases that allow for rapid technology prototyping and multiple transition opportunities. This first phase, defined by an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract, is anticipated to run until late 2019. Initial demonstrations will be from an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft. In addition to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the system will be designed for compatibility with F-35 Lightning II, F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress aircraft.

«Our AFRL customer will benefit from decades of Lockheed Martin experience in building high-quality, low-cost systems like Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), while capitalizing on the experience of our team in developing and integrating advanced cruise missiles such as Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) on military aircraft», Mourad said.

Airborne Laser

The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) awarded Lockheed Martin $26.3 million for the design, development and production of a high-power fiber laser. AFRL plans to test the laser on a tactical fighter jet by 2021. The contract is part of AFRL’s Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, and is a major step forward in the maturation of protective airborne laser systems.

Lockheed Martin is helping the Air Force Research Lab develop and mature high energy laser weapon systems, including the high energy laser pictured in this rendering (Credit: Air Force Research Lab)
Lockheed Martin is helping the Air Force Research Lab develop and mature high energy laser weapon systems, including the high energy laser pictured in this rendering (Credit: Air Force Research Lab)

«Lockheed Martin continues to rapidly advance laser weapon systems and the technologies that make them possible», said Doctor Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed Martin. «We have demonstrated our ability to use directed energy to counter threats from the ground, and look forward to future tests from the air as part of the SHiELD system».

The SHiELD program includes three subsystems:

  • SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE), the beam control system, which will direct the laser onto the target;
  • Laser Pod Research & Development (LPRD), the pod mounted on the tactical fighter jet, which will power and cool the laser;
  • Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE), the high energy laser itself, which can be trained on adversary targets to disable them.

LANCE is designed to operate in a compact environment, and as such, the Lockheed Martin team focused on developing a compact, high efficiency laser within challenging size, weight and power constraints.

«Earlier this year, we delivered a 60 kW-class laser to be installed on a U.S. Army ground vehicle. It’s a completely new and different challenge to get a laser system into a smaller, airborne test platform. It’s exciting to see this technology mature enough to embed in an aircraft», said Afzal. «The development of high power laser systems like SHiELD show laser weapon system technologies are becoming real. The technologies are ready to be produced, tested and deployed on aircraft, ground vehicles and ships».

Lockheed Martin has more than 40 years of experience developing laser weapon systems. The LANCE contract leverages technology building blocks from internal research and development projects, including the ATHENA system and ALADIN laser, as well as contract experience gained from programs such as the U.S. Army’s Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI) program.