The U.S. Air Force wants a brand new drone. It has to do everything the current Predator can do but better, including staying airborne for 1 week and taking advantage of less ground support than its unmanned predecessor. To reach this high bar, the Air Force might consider a hybrid or solar-powered engine, an airship design, and other technology which may not yet exist. But the end product must cost only $1 million per aircraft.
This new program is called the Ultra-Endurance Unmanned Air Vehicle, and program manager Marc Owens in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Center for Rapid Innovation tells Popular Mechanics that it’ll be ideally fitted to gathering intelligence and can carry cameras and radar rather than bombs. At present, the Air Force is capable of supporting just about 60 drone Combat Air Patrols (CAP) at once, which is not many given that a CAP could possibly be centered on just one village and even focused on following a single high-value individual. Cheap drones could boost numbers and be sent into situations too hazardous for a costlier aircraft.
The new drone should be stealthier than the Predator and its particular lawnmower-like engine, and definately will have satellite communications with a payload at about half the Predator’s. Although an inferior drone will make this new aircraft look like a pipsqueak compared, electronics have shrunk considerably considering that the Predator came into service in 1994. It would be like comparing an iPhone 7 with an IBM Simon.
“Technologically, numerous advancements could be important to guide the actual required objective,” says Owens, mentioning innovative aerodynamic designs, efficient propulsion systems, and solar technology. “But we have been ‘agnostic’ about technology.” In other words, they’re available to ideas. Although they’ll consider several proposals from different companies, only one can join the Air Force’s drone fleet. But this drone’s leading edge requirements may make it a huge challenge to develop.
First is meeting that daunting seven-day flight quota. The Air Force’s Predator can fly for the two-day stretch by making use of a frugal Rotax engine and glider-like wings. But that length can be simply passed using just 1980s technology.
Boeing’s prototype 1988 Condor drone, for example, were built with a 200-foot wingspan, slightly more when compared to a 747 airliner. It was manufactured from new lightweight composite materials, and tipped the scales at 20,300 pounds, under one-thirteenth the load of their 747. A pair of fuel-injected, 6-cylinder piston engines drove the Condor to speeds over 200 mph. It took off from the four-wheeled trolley and landed on skis to save lots of weight and could go on for 58 hours in mid-air, though designers point out that number isn’t even close to its limit as it could likely stay airborne for any week. Like the much smaller Predator, Condor was made for surveillance when Boeing finished the style in 1989, it had been way too expensive.
What if the winning design isn’t a winged drone whatsoever, but an airship? The Air Force doesn’t always have an incredible history with lighter-than-air dirigibles, because it’s already canceled the $200 million Blue Devil drone blimp in 2012 (the Army also terminated their similar LEMV in 2013). Other airships, like DARPA’s Walrus, have met similar fates. Any airship proposal to the Ultra-Endurance UAV will have to hold steady rich in 50 mph winds. Airlander says its airships can survive up to 80 mph gales, but claiming has not been tested.
The Air Force’s best bet is likely a hybrid engine combining solar powered energy with fuel cells, a concept derived coming from a NASA study into long-endurance air vehicles. Airbus is focusing on the Zephyr, an ungainly solar craft with a 70-foot wingspan, which supports the record for that level of hours airborne at 336 (about two whole weeks). But its 11-pound payload is just a fraction of the the Air Force needs.
Maybe more complex solar drones might towards the job. Google’s planned Solara 60 meets the USAF’s payload target, but even its little brother, the Solara 50, will definitely cost an excellent $10 million, far beyond the $1 million target.
But hope remains. Back in 2008, a similarly ambitious Air Force program aimed to deliver Predator-type capability in a fraction from the cost. The horribly named “Low Cost Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” would carry a camera as well as a laser designator with day-long flight time with a bargain price of $50,000 compared on the Predator’s $4 million.
Navmar Applied Sciences Corporation met the task with advanced aerodynamics, composite materials, and off-the-shelf (and hence cheap) electronics. Its design took over as RQ-23 TigerShark, that has seen service in Afghanistan hunting buried IEDs. So cost-cutting in terms of making next-generation drones is achievable.
Owens says the prototype should start flying couple of years following the first contract is awarded. Transition to service is dependent upon how well it works and whether or not the Air Force still needs it if it is finished. So this highly advanced drone could just become another forgotten project rotting in the hangar much like the Condor as well as the LEMV, or it might blossom into a significant element of the U.S. Air Force’s drone fleet, giving an eyes-on view anywhere and everywhere on earth.