Navy begins test of tube-launched UAV

A Navy rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicle designed to be fired from a sonobuoy launch tube will enter what is planned to be a final phase of testing under a $10.5 million contract award to Lite Machines, of West Lafayette, Ind.

The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity Phase III Small Business Technology Transfer contract will move the development of the firm’s Voyeur UAV from research and development to testing and then production.

The 3-pound, 27-inch Voyeur looks like a helicopter rotor without the rest of the helicopter — just a tapered cylinder with a pair of propeller blades that rotate in opposite directions. It is one of several craft developed under the Navy’s sonobuoy tube-launched UAV program.

A sonobuoy is an expendable sonar device designed for anti-submarine operations or other reconnaissance missions. Launch tubes for the devices are standard equipment on ships and survey aircraft. The Voyeur is one of several UAVs designed to take advantage of that standard launch mechanism.

Others include fixed-wing aircraft such as the Coyote UAV manufactured by Advanced Ceramics Research of Tucson, Ariz.

Rotary-wing flight has some advantages, said Jon Maynell, Voyeur program manager at Lite Machines, which also manufactures model helicopters for hobbyists and commercial applications.

I think the reason this is getting so much traction is you do not need to maintain any forward motion to stay aloft,” he said, and that makes the craft ideal for “hover-and-stare” applications involving surveillance of a specific location.

The electric motor is quiet enough that ambient noise would drown it out, particularly in a combat setting. In urban warfare settings, the Voyeur has the potential to drop down to street level, dodging telephone and power wires, and it can even be piloted through an open window, down a hallway and up a flight of stairs. In another setting, it might dip beneath a jungle or forest canopy or sneak into the hold of a ship.

It will be able to go places we literally haven’t been able to go with an unmanned asset,” Maynell said, adding that it will lower the risk to pilots by enabling them to do more reconnaissance of dangerous situations remotely. The company has flown prototype versions of the craft, but in the next round of testing, it will have to show that its UAVs can withstand being launched with 80 to 85 g-forces and still operate properly, Maynell said. “We need to show that it will work with the actual launch hardware,” he said.

If all goes well and the UAVs move into production, Maynell said he expects that the contract could be expanded to as much as $25 million. The target price per unit is well less than $10,000, Maynell said, and company officials hope to reduce it to a couple of thousand per UAV once they start manufacturing the devices in bulk.

The primary usage scenario is for the craft to be launched from P3 or P8 aircraft within an outer metal canister. It would drop with a parachute to keep it vertically oriented, shed the protective canister and parachute further toward its target within a plastic sleeve. When the craft reached its operating height, it would shed the plastic sleeve, unfold its helicopter rotors, rev its electric engine and operate for 45 to 90 minutes. Cameras and other sensors are mounted on the craft in a modular fashion so that it can be reconfigured for different types of missions.

The Voyeur could also be launched from a ship’s sonobuoy tube — for example, for rescues — or fired from a land-based launcher, Maynell said.

Lite Machines is manufacturing a smaller version of the Voyeur for the Air Force. It should be ready for Phase III testing in about a year, he said.

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