The Air Force Research Laboratory believes it’s on to something when it comes to long-endurance drone flight.
By Theresa Hitchens on December 13, 2019, at 5:13 PM
WASHINGTON: While other commercial and military drones have flown longer, the two and a half-day flight of the Air Force’s latest unmanned aircraft prototype this week does represent a kind of breakthrough for the US military: proving that commercial technology can be adapted to build affordable long-endurance and highly capable surveillance drones.
And the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Dayton, Ohio is convinced that the new, autonomous Ultra-Long Endurance Aircraft Platform (Ultra LEAP) will be able to stay in the sky for longer in future flight tests.
“Developing a UAS with this level of endurance is an incredible achievement for future warfighting and battlefield success,” said Paul Litke, the AFRL project engineer for Ultra LEAP. In an Air Force announcement yesterday, Litke explains that since the system employs many commercial off-the-shelf components, Ultra LEAP will dramatically reduce the costs for high-performance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones.
The “2.5-day Ultra LEAP mission is a significant milestone in solving the tyranny of distance problem for ISR systems,” said Dr Alok Das, director of AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation (CRI). “It will provide immediate benefit to our warfighters while at the same time paving the path for future low-cost, multi-day endurance ISR systems.”
Ultra LEAP is based on a commercially available “sport-class” commercial airframe — sport aircraft cost anywhere between $20,000 and $140,000. An AFRL spokesman told Breaking D today that the service could not release the name of the company providing the chassis “for security reasons.”
The basic airframe was souped up by AFRL to carry a “customizable suite of ISR tools” that feature “secure, easy to use navigation employing anti-jam GPS and full global operational access via a satellite-based command and control and high-rate ISR data relay link.” The aircraft body was further “converted to a fully automated system with autonomous takeoff and landing capabilities,” the press release said.
The high level of automation it provides will enable greatly reduced operator training requirements for the Air Force. Smaller support crews will also lead to lower operating costs, according to AFRL.
“As the Air Force balances current readiness with long-term modernization, Ultra LEAP represents an affordable approach that supports both existing and future force needs,” said Maj. Gen. William Cooley, AFRL commander, adding that the “enhanced UAS capabilities along with the cost savings offer the military a winning solution.”
The Ultra LEAP effort evolved from an earlier AFRL experiment, just called LEAP but with the A standing for aircraft started in 2016.
Then AFRL Commander Robert McMurry testified to Congress in September 2016 that the program, managed by CRI, was designed to provide “a revolutionary, low-cost, low acoustic signature, persistent aerial ISR capability to address Combatant Command and U.S. Special Forces ISR gaps by converting a proven, fuel-efficient Light-Sport Aircraft into an UAS.” Four of the original LEAP aircraft were deployed in early 2016 in conjunction with Special Operations Command, he said.
McMurry added that “LEAP significantly bends today’s ISR cost-performance curve and enables needed counter-insurgency capability and ISR capacity at a fraction of the cost of comparably performing systems.”
The original LEAP was capable of missions up to 40 hours and has completed more than 18,000 combat flight hours.
Using the same commercial customization strategy as the original LEAP, CRI developed Ultra LEAP from concept to first flight in less than 10 months, the AFRL release explained, and the system could be ready for operational fielding as soon as 2020.
The Air Force is interested in developing a range of long-endurance ISR drones, and in August 2018 issued its Next Generation Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Dominance Flight Plan. The plan sets out the service strategy for “a shift from a manpower-intensive permissive environment to a human-machine teaming approach in a peer threat environment.”
For example, the Air Force issued a $48 million contract to Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences subsidiary for its Orion drone in January 2018. Orion has an endurance of 80 hours.
In May of this year, AFRL worked jointly with Lockheed Martin to enhance its Condor eXtended Endurance and Payload (XEP) — improving its endurance from two hours to four. The team also improved the small drone’s fuselage to accommodate multiple payload types, according to a May 22 Lockheed Martin press release.
The current record for the longest flight time by an unmanned aerial vehicle is held by the pseudo-satellite (an airframe that flies very, very high in the stratosphere) called Zephyr, developed by Airbus Defense and Space. It flew for more than 25 days in the fall of 2018.
The US military’s most famous drone, the armed MQ-1 Predator made by General Atomics, has an endurance of 40 hours.