The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is developing a long-range unmanned surveillance aircraft that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter — even on a ship in heavy seas or from a remote Marine outpost — and cruise horizontally like a plane.
The Flexrotor by Aerovel Corp. would provide autonomous intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage with less equipment and maintenance than other drones, according to U.S. Navy officials.
“Aircraft that can take off and land vertically, and also have fast and efficient cruise flight, are potentially useful platforms to operate from ships. They are also suited to operation from Marine Corps small-unit combat outposts,” said John Kinzer, an ONR program officer.
The aircraft will supply imaging, magnetometry, data relays, weather analysis and reconnaissance — all in real time, Aerovel President Tad McGeer said. Production models are expected in 2013 or 2014.
Both the Navy and Aerovel also are playing up the Flexrotor’s use of an “automatic service platform” that serves as a launch-and-recovery pad as well as a maintenance station, eliminating the need for a launching catapult or a snare required by drones with similar missions, such as Boeing’s ScanEagle.
The Flexrotor’s wingspan is less than 10 feet. It’s slightly more than 5 feet long and weighs 42 pounds. It can reach speeds as fast as 90 mph, but cruises at 50 mph, and can stay airborne more than 40 hours.