New, Low-Cost Air Force ISR Drone Prototype Flies 2.5 Days

 In GDI, Defense, Cyber/ICT, Air, Space, Environment

AFRL’s Ultra LEAP long-endurance ISR drone

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 offers 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.

Source: Breaking Defense

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