Textron Systems is preparing to take the production-ready hybrid quad version of its Aerosonde fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle to sea in support of the U.S. Southern Seas/UNITAS exercise in 2019. Textron anticipates that this added capability will become the backbone of shipborne operations in the future. The company has now completed development of the VTOL kit for Aerosonde and is continuing to test-fly it at its Blackstone, Virginia facility, but is planning on taking it for maritime testing on a boat at Wallops Island in the near future, ahead of trialling it in front of potential customers during the next U.S. Navy’s Southern Seas deployment.
“We're anticipating—during the same exercise with the Navy again next year, the U.S. Southern Seas, which will culminate in the UNITAS exercise again in 2019—taking our VTOL version of Aerosonde out for that,” David Phillips, vice-president of small and medium endurance UAS at Textron, told AIN. The standard version participated in the 2018 version of the exercise, which saw it operated from USS Gunston Hall throughout the multinational effort that was led this year by Colombia.
“It's different landing on a GPS coordinate that is only rotating with the earth versus landing on a GPS coordinate that is moving in three axes,” Phillips noted. “A ship is rolling and tilting and it's also moving forward. So, we need to make sure that we've got all that worked out, that we can tell an aircraft to land and track against a point that is moving.”
Phillips explained that the company has been working to mature the design, which enables a standard version to be retrofitted in around three minutes to a hybrid configuration that takes off and lands vertically but flies horizontally.
“Right now, the size of the boat and whether there is a helicopter on board dictates what can be brought on board, and how small they [the operators] want you to be,” he added, explaining that the footprint of Aerosonde can be small if the launcher is no longer required and it is able to land on a GPS coordinate.
Under a certificate of authorization granted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, UAVs can be flown at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, through which they can be flown over Chesapeake Bay, which will be the first point for the ship-based testing. The endurance of the hybrid variant is some 10 hours, down on the 16 hours that the standard variant can operate for due to the extra weight and drag of the kit, but by operating two hybrid Aerosondes in tandem, for example, a 24/7 operation could be carried out.
“The future for operating from a ship, particularly opening up the market to operate off extremely small ships, ships that may not even have a flight deck, is a VTOL capability,” Phillips explained. “We understand that the smaller we can get, the less obtrusive we can get, and the ability to take off from and land on a point is going to have great value in a maritime environment. We're doing a lot of work to make sure that we mature that and that we take it out and exercise it and show its ability next year with that exercise. And that's what we would anticipate providing to the [U.S.] Navy on future task orders.”