VMU-2 FLIES RQ-21A IN CHERRY POINT MCAS AIRSPACE

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MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, North Carolina — Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 launched into a new era with its RQ-21A Blackjack flight into Class D airspace, over Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, March 21.

Commonly only allowed to fly in restricted airspace, VMU-2 now has the expanded ability to integrate RQ-21A flight operations with manned aircraft over this air station.

Cherry Point’s Class D airspace is defined by a circle around the air station with a 5-mile radius, from the ground up to 2,500 feet above the air station. This is airspace that is constantly under the control of Cherry Point air traffic control, and is frequently busy with military air traffic, as well as contracted commercial flights landing and departing the air station.

“Unmanned aerial systems like the Blackjack are commonly flown from forward sites that sometimes restrict our integration with other air players and events,” explained 1st Lt. Orlando J. Benedict, an unmanned aerial systems officer with the squadron. “Having the RQ-21A at MCAS Cherry Point fosters connections with the rest of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and allows for procedures that integrate manned and unmanned aviation to be solidified for the future.”

The Blackjack is designed to operate off a Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of ground forces deployed worldwide. UAS requirements have evolved and the Marine Corps has refined its concept of operations to incorporate rapidly emerging technologies in its unmanned systems.

The RQ-21A Blackjack can safeguard military bases and activities through a pattern of life identification and explosive device detection. It is equipped with an electro-optic/infrared payload that supports the real-time monitoring to provide indications and threat warnings, and its plug-and-play payloads enable multi-intelligence capability to support a broad range of operations.

“The Blackjack’s main purpose is to support aerial reconnaissance missions,” said Sgt. James E. Burch, a UAV operator with VMU-2. “With the new system, we will now be able to launch and land the UAV on a ship, where with other systems, more space would be required for recovery.”

DARPA Announces VTOL X-Plane Phase 2 Design

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Unorthodox unmanned aircraft would push the limits of technology to combine plane-like speed and helicopter-like agility into one breakthrough vehicle!

For decades, aircraft designers seeking to improve vertical takeoff 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 kt to 400 kt
  • 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

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.”

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Army Looking for Lightweight weapons for UAS Platforms

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he Army could be looking to expand the lethality of its drone fleet, recently issuing a request for information for small guided munitions that can be outfitted to rotary wing and unmanned aerial systems. Specifically, the Army said its primary interest is in weapons of 60 pounds or less—and preferably in the 25-pounds range.

Additionally, these weapon systems should be able to engage both moving and stationary targets that include lightly armored vehicles, fleeting light vehicles and dismounted combatants in day and night conditions, with low collateral damage.

The Army already operates UASs with lethal payloads such as the medium-altitude, long-range MQ-1C Gray Eagle that can carry four Hellfire missiles weighing roughly 100 pounds each.

Hellfire missiles – the primary munition outfitted on unmanned aircraft associated with the controversial targeted killing program run by the CIA using the dual surveillance and strike capability of drones – have been described by many, such as former CIA director Michael Hayden, as one the most accurate and humane forms of targeting, given their precision and small warheads that limit collateral damage.

The Army is not releasing details regarding the platforms, regions or units the armaments being requested would be applied to, saying that information is too sensitive, a contracting employee told Defense Systems. “Inquiries regarding sensitive information such as specific platforms, Army units and regions will not be addressed in this forum,” the RFI states.

As such, it is not clear if the Army wishes to arm smaller UAS platforms such as the MQ-5B or the RQ-7B Shadow, or if it wishes to apply the desired technology to the Gray Eagle, potentially freeing coveted size, weight and power requirements for additional payloads.

Army officials have indicated in the past that they are interested in taking weight off of certain UAS platforms to increase payload capacity. Additionally, they have discussed potentially weaponizing the Shadow, an aircraft with a 14-foot wingspan that has been used for surveillance, target acquisition and battle damage assessment.

“Weaponing Shadow comes at a cost to the commander who now has to maybe trade station time and fuel for a payload,” Col. Thomas Von Eschenbach, the director of the capabilities integration center at TRADOC, told reporters last fall.  “It depends on what it weighs and what it can do. So at what cost would it take, and what munition would that do? We’re not ruling it out [but] on the current Shadow system, that’s a challenge.”

There has also been talk of changing the armament of the Gray Eagle to include other weapons than just Hellfire missiles.

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USAF Retrofits Reapers with extended range/endurance kits

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The contractor for the famed MQ-9 Reaper has announced that it conducted successful test flights with retrofits designed to increase the unmanned aircraft’s endurance.

The retrofits for the Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper Extended Range (ER) Long Wing, as General Atomics calls it, include a 13-foot wingspan extension that takes the expanse of its wings to 79 feet, greater internal fuel capacity and hard points for carrying external stores. The improvements will increase the Reaper’s flight endurance from 27 hours to 40 hours, General Atomics said in a release. Other improvements include short-field takeoff and landing performance and spoilers on the wings to enable precision automatic landings.

“Predator B ER’s new 79-foot wing span not only boosts the RPA’s endurance and range, but also serves as proof-of-concept for the next-generation Predator B aircraft that will be designed for Type-Certification and airspace integration,” said Linden Blue, CEO of General Atomics. “The wing was designed to conform to STANAG 4671 [NATO Airworthiness Standard for RPA systems], and includes lightning and bird strike protection, non-destructive testing, and advanced composite and adhesive materials for extreme environments.”

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