NRL sub drone launch

UAS and Robotics

Navy launches first drone from submerged submarine

After six years of development, the Naval Research Laboratory has achieved the long-sought capability of vertically launching an unmanned aircraft from a submerged submarine.

The Los Angeles-class USS Providence, operating off the East Coast, launched the eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System (XFC UAS) using a Tomahawk missile launch canister and a Sea Robin launch vehicle, the NRL said in an announcement.

The Sea Robin was loaded into the launch canister and fired from one of the Providence’s torpedo tubes. It reached the surface, popping up as a buoy, and then, on command from the Providence, launched the XFC. The aircraft flew for several hours, streaming video back to the Providence, other support vessels and Naval Station Norfolk, before landing at the Naval Sea Systems Command Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center in Andros, Bahamas, NRL said.

The launch promises to expand the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) ability of the Navy’s submarine fleet.

The XFC is an autonomous, all-electric, fuel-cell powered, folding X-wing UAS which, after launch, quickly deployed its wings to achieve horizontal flight, NRL said.

The project, with funding from ONR’s SwampWorks and the Defense Department’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office and conducted with industry partners, developed all the pieces for the launch, including the XFC, the fuel cells and the Sea Robin, which was designed to fit inside the Tomahawk canister.

"Developing disruptive technologies and quickly getting them into the hands of our sailors is what our SwampWorks program is all about," said Craig A. Hughes, acting director of innovation at ONR. "This demonstration really underpins ONR's dedication and ability to address emerging fleet priorities."

In the long run, the military is planning for a fleet of undersea craft capable of launching both underwater and air vehicles, which could provide both a strategic advantage and cost savings over manned missions.

Earlier this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency put out the call for a submersible ship, to be called Hydra, that could launch airborne and seagoing vehicles. The Navy also has used relatively small, unmanned submarines in the Persian Gulf for mine detection.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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