The U.S. Air Force has awarded a new $48 million contract to Aurora Flight Sciences for the continued development of the Orion Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).
Orion is a twin-engine high performance UAS that can stay aloft over 100 hours at a time with payloads in excess of 1,000 pounds/453.6 kg. Development of the Orion started in 2006 and its first flight was in August 2013. In December 2014, the Orion established the current UAS world endurance record with an 80-hour, 2-minute and 52-second flight.
The new contract funds the development of a certified version of Orion that will be suitable for deployment anywhere in the world. The work will be performed in Columbus, Mississippi, and Manassas, Virginia.
Reduces number of bases needed for worldwide ops;
Reduces forward footprint minimizing personnel in harm’s way;
Provides flexibility even when infrastructure or airfields are unavailable;
Previously unreachable areas of vast oceans are now reachable.
Aurora Flight Sciences conducted a successful demonstration of the company’s autonomous helicopter system developed under the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program. Held at Marine Corps Base Quantico’s Urban Training Center, the AACUS-Enabled UH-1H (AEH-1) conducted multiple flights, showcasing its ability to autonomously execute re-supply missions in relevant and austere settings.
AACUS is an aircraft-agnostic hardware and software suite which enables a Marine on the ground to request a supply delivery via helicopter from a handheld tablet, requiring no advanced training to operate the system. AEH-1 is fitted with onboard lidar and camera sensors that enable it to detect and avoid obstacles and evaluate the landing zone. The system processes this information to perform onboard mission, route, and path planning to enable autonomous mission execution.
While previous demonstrations have showcased the system’s autonomy capabilities and interactions with trained operators, this is the first demonstration in which the aircraft performed cargo and utility missions in an operationally-relevant training environment with Marine interaction. As part of the demonstration, Marines loaded supplies for the aircraft before clearing the autonomy system for autonomous takeoff.
«The Marines’ vision for the future of vertical lift operation and support is optionally-piloted aircraft», said AACUS Program Manager Stephen Chisarik. «Aurora’s system enables any rotary-wing aircraft to detect and react to hazards in the flight path, and make appropriate adjustments to keep the aircraft safe».
«We’ve developed this great capability ahead of requirements and it’s up to us to determine how to use it», said Lieutenant General Robert Walsh, commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. «The young marines today have grown up in a tech-savvy society, which is an advantage. We’ve got to keep pushing and moving this technology forward».
Aurora has developed multiple technologies under the AACUS program: the digital flight control system which enables the UH-1 to fly autonomously; and the Tactical Autonomous aerial LOgistics System (TALOS) autonomy technology. The AEH-1 was granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in October, allowing the aircraft to operate autonomous with only a safety pilot onboard to monitor the controls.
Today’s flights served as the final demonstration to ONR, Department of Defense representatives and other senior officials, the culmination of a highly successful five-year Innovative Naval Prototype (INP) program. Having completed the third and final phase of the program, AACUS will now transition to the Marine Corps for experimentation and potential acquisition.
On April 18, Aurora Flight Sciences announced that a Subscale Vehicle Demonstrator (SVD) of its LightningStrike, Vertical Take-off and Landing Experimental Plane (VTOL X-plane) for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was successfully flown at a U.S. military facility at Manassas, Virginia. The flight of the subscale aircraft met an important DARPA risk reduction requirement, focusing on validation of the aerodynamic design and flight control system.
«The successful subscale aircraft flight was an important and exciting step for Aurora and our customer», said Tom Clancy, Aurora’s chief technology officer. «Our design’s distributed electric propulsion system involves breaking new ground with a flight control system requiring a complex set of control effectors. This first flight is an important, initial confirmation that both the flight controls and aerodynamic design are aligning with our design predictions».
The subscale aircraft weighs 325 pounds/147.4 kg and is a 20% scale flight model of the full scale demonstrator Aurora will build for DARPA in the next 24 months. The wing and canard of the subscale vehicle utilize a hybrid structure of carbon fiber and 3D printed FDM plastics to achieve highly complex structural and aerodynamic surfaces with minimal weight. The unmanned aircraft take-off, hover and landing was controlled by Aurora personnel located in a nearby ground control station with oversight and coordination by U.S. government officials including DARPA personnel.
On March 3, 2016, DARPA announced the award of the Phase II contract for the VTOL X-Plane contract to Aurora, following a multi-year, Phase I design competition. The program seeks to develop a vertical take-off and landing demonstrator aircraft that will achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300 knots/345 mph/556 km/h – 400 knots/460 mph/741 km/h, with 60-75% increase in hover efficiency over existing VTOL aircraft. Aurora’s design is for the first aircraft in aviation history to demonstrate distributed hybrid-electric propulsion using an innovative synchronous electric-drive system. Having successfully completed the subscale demonstrator flight, Aurora’s LightningStrike team will focus over the next year on further validation of flight control system and configuration of the full scale VTOL X-Plane demonstrator.
Aurora Flight Sciences’ subscale vehicle demonstrator successfully flew at a U.S. military facility
For decades, aircraft designers seeking to improve Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) capabilities have endured a substantial set of interrelated challenges. Dozens of attempts have been made to increase top speed without sacrificing range, efficiency or the ability to do useful work, with each effort struggling or failing in one way or another.
DARPA’s VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane) program aims to overcome these challenges through innovative cross-pollination between fixed-wing and rotary-wing technologies and by developing and integrating novel subsystems to enable radical improvements in vertical and cruising flight capabilities. In an important step toward that goal, DARPA has awarded the Phase 2 contract for VTOL X-Plane to Aurora Flight Sciences.
«Just when we thought it had all been done before, the Aurora team found room for invention – truly new elements of engineering and technology that show enormous promise for demonstration on actual flight vehicles», said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. «This is an extremely novel approach», Bagai said of the selected design. «It will be very challenging to demonstrate, but it has the potential to move the technology needle the farthest and provide some of the greatest spinoff opportunities for other vertical flight and aviation products».
VTOL X-Plane seeks to develop a technology demonstrator that could:
Achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300 knot/345 mph/555 km/h to 400 knot/460 mph/740 km/h;
Raise aircraft hover efficiency from 60 percent to at least 75 percent;
Present a more favorable cruise lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10, up from 5-6;
Carry a useful load of at least 40 percent of the vehicle’s projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds/4,536-5,443 kg.
Aurora’s Phase 2 design for VTOL X-Plane envisions an unmanned aircraft with two large rear wings and two smaller front canards – short winglets mounted near the nose of the aircraft. A turboshaft engine – one used in V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft – mounted in the fuselage would provide 3 megawatts (4,000 horsepower) of electrical power, the equivalent of an average commercial wind turbine. The engine would drive 24 ducted fans, nine integrated into each wing and three inside each canard. Both the wings and the canards would rotate to direct fan thrust as needed: rearward for forward flight, downward for hovering and at angles during transition between the two.
The design envisions an aircraft that could fly fast and far, hover when needed and accomplish diverse missions without the need for prepared landing areas. While the technology demonstrator would be unmanned, the technologies that VTOL X-Plane intends to develop could apply equally well to manned aircraft. The program has the goal of performing flight tests in the 2018 timeframe.
Aurora’s unique design is only possible through advances in technology over the past 60 years, in fields such as air vehicle and aeromechanics design and testing, adaptive and reconfigurable control systems, and highly integrated designs. It would also be impossible with the classical mechanical drive systems used in today’s vertical lift aircraft, Bagai said.
The Phase 2 design addresses in innovative ways many longstanding technical obstacles, the biggest of which is that the design characteristics that enable good hovering capabilities are completely different from those that enable fast forward flight. Among the revolutionary design advances to be incorporated in the technology demonstrator:
Electric power generation and distribution systems to enable multiple fans and transmission-agnostic air vehicle designs;
Modularized, cellular aerodynamic wing design with integrated propulsion to enable the wings to perform efficiently in forward flight, hover and when transitioning between them;
Overactuated flight control systems that could change the thrust of each fan to increase maneuverability and efficiency.
«This VTOL X-plane won’t be in volume production in the next few years but is important for the future capabilities it could enable», Bagai said. «Imagine electric aircraft that are more quiet, fuel-efficient and adaptable and are capable of runway-independent operations. We want to open up whole new design and mission spaces freed from prior constraints, and enable new VTOL aircraft systems and subsystems».
Aurora Flight Sciences announced on July 14 that on July 1, 2015 the company received official notification from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) that its Orion aircraft set the world record for duration of flight for a remotely controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The record was awarded based on the aircraft’s 80-hour, 2-minute and 52-second flight that took place December 5-8, 2014. The previous record for the same class of unmanned aircraft was just over 30 hours, set by a Global Hawk in 2001.
The National Aeronautic Association (NAA) also notified Aurora that the record-breaking Orion flight was being formally recognized by NAA as one of the most memorable aviation milestones of 2014. In 2014 the Orion record flight was also recognized by NAA in naming Orion as a finalist for the Collier Trophy, one of the world’s most distinguished aviation awards. Officials from NAA were on-hand to supervise and formally witness the Orion record-breaking flight in December, 2014.
«We’re thrilled to receive notification that FAI and NAA have officially recognized this groundbreaking development in unmanned flight», said Dr. John S. Langford, chairman and CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences. «The U.S. military put the challenge to Aurora to develop a long-endurance unmanned system that far exceeded the capabilities of existing technologies. Obviously, when taxpayer dollars are invested, the goal is not only to see if a long-endurance flight can be achieved, but to ultimately deploy the system in support of the American warfighter. We met and exceeded our customer’s requirements for the aircraft. The most important recognition for Orion will come when the aircraft is put to work meeting exactly what U.S. warfighter is calling for – unmanned, persistent surveillance of our enemies. We stand ready to meet this growing demand».
In recent months, demand from U.S. national security leaders for long-endurance, or «persistent», Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in an unmanned aircraft has been on the rise. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on June 10, 2015, House Defense Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said, «We believe that a strong Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability is a critical component of the Global War on Terrorism. And yet, a succession of combatant commanders has testified that only a fraction of their ISR requirements are being met, in essence, leaving them blind to the enemy’s activities, movements and intentions».
Aurora Flight Sciences is a world leader in design and manufacture of medium altitude, long-endurance unmanned and optionally piloted aircraft for military ISR requirements and a wide range of commercial applications. «It’s not every day that a U.S. government contractor is tasked with testing the existing boundaries of a given aviation threshold, only to shatter that threshold and establish a world record», said Langford. «The Orion platform certainly joins our Centaur aircraft as a pillar in Aurora’s growing suite of products that we believe will experience significant demand in the coming years».
The company’s Centaur optionally piloted, medium altitude, long-endurance aircraft, in service with customers including a European defense agency, also recently became the first large Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to fly in one of six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test sites designed to prepare for integration in the U.S. national air space. The ability to fly manned or unmanned in the sovereign airspace of customer and neighboring countries is a unique capability that greatly reduces costs and logistics, and optimizes the aircraft’s time-on-mission.
«The global threat environment and related ISR requirements are evolving rapidly, and doing so in the context of deep budget cuts», said Dr. John S. Langford, chairman and CEO of Aurora. «Our go-to-market strategy is grounded in the basic notion of a customer-driven contracting approach. We’re doing traditional sale and lease agreements, as well as company-owned and operated deals that allow the government customer to focus more on the acquisition of information, as opposed to airplanes».
Orion Payload Options
Multi-Spectral Full Motion Video (FMV)
Wide Area Airborne Surveillance (WAAS)
Search And Rescue (SAR)/Dismount Moving Target Indication (DMTI)
Hyperspectral Video and Imaging
Line-Of-Sight (LOS) and Beyond Line-Of-Sight (BLOS) Communications Relay
Signals Intelligence (SIGNIT)
Maritime Domain Awareness radars
Foliage Penetration radars (FOPEN)
Onboard Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (PED)
132 feet/40.23 m
50 feet/15.24 m
Gross Take-Off Weight (GTOW)
11,200 lbs/5,080 kg
Useful Payload Weight
2,600 lbs/1,179 kg
Useful Payload Space
146+ feet3/4.13+ m3
Dedicated Payload Power
11 kW (22 kW Option)
Dual FAA certified heavy-fuel engines
Triplex avionics for reliable operation
120 hours with 1,000 lbs/453.6 kg payload
3,476 NM/4,000 miles/6,437 km with 24 hours on-station