WASHINGTON — Small business Platform Aerospace continued to set records in 2021 with its Vanilla Unmanned family of drones, but the company says it’s working to ensure it’s building a relevant military platform, not just an aerospace novelty.
The Vanilla UAV in its long-endurance configuration set a world record in September and into October, when it flew for eight days, 50 minutes and 47 seconds out of Edwards Air Force Base in California. The aircraft had previously demonstrated a five-day flight.
Chief Growth Officer Greg Pappianou told Defense News in a phone interview the drone came back on Oct. 2 with enough fuel that it probably could have flown for at least another 24 hours.
“Yes, we are aviation nerds, we will push the endurance to the boundary,” Pappianou said when asked if the company wants to go beyond the eight-day flight and demonstrate the full 10-day endurance. “But don’t lose sight of the fact that the reason we’re doing that is to further harden that five-day aircraft that’s going to be loaded to the gills” with payloads.
Platform Aerospace, a veteran-owned small business with about 80 employees, half of whom work on the Vanilla Unmanned side of the business, bought the UAV design several years ago with the intent of turning the long-endurance design into something useful for the military.
The company, based just outside Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland, has since worked to finetune the aircraft and find new ways to integrate potential payloads.
Platform Aerospace advertises that its Group 3 unmanned aerial vehicle can fly for 10 days with 30 pounds of internally carried payload, or three to five days with up to 150 pounds of external and internal payloads. Its design offers something of a sliding scale to balance payload and endurance, with fuel being traded for sensors and electronics.
On the light payload and long endurance end of the spectrum, Pappianou offered up an example from conversations with the U.S. Army.
“One of the use cases ... has been something as simple as: Can you provide secure radio coverage? Almost imagine a bubble of secure communications for multiple days overhead,” he said. “You can almost have this flying cell tower that’s overhead of your folks; as they move, the flying cell tower moves too. And so that eight-day aircraft … would be able to do that mission.”
During the eight-day flight, Pappianou said, the aircraft flew with a mesh radio and a 16-pound weight in its nose, which simulated a payload without the technical risk of that payload failing midflight. For this potential Army example, the military could swap in any 16-pound internal payload and still retain up to 10 days aloft.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pappianou described a test Vanilla Unmanned conducted in July with U.S. Southern Command. The vehicle flew out of Key West with a mesh radio, satellite communications, a radar pod, and an electro-optical/infrared camera, demonstrating what a multiday drone with a complex payload package could accomplish.
“They’re saying, we have these UAVs, they’re great; they are one sensor only though. They’re only an EO/IR camera. And in terms of scanning a really large area of the ocean, that’s actually not particularly helpful,” Pappianou said. “And so incorporating that radar, what we were able to demonstrate is being able to pick up targets miles and miles away with the radar and then cue in the EO/IR camera on that target. And so you kind of get that long surface search capability of the radar, and then you’re also overhead to then go in and identify visually with the camera. And that’s kind of unique.”
He said SOUTHCOM wanted to do this demonstration with illicit trafficking in mind. Drug traffickers have figured out aircraft ranges and plan their routes for that distance plus a few miles from the shore to evade cameras overhead, he noted.
“Getting ... that true multi-day endurance, but then having some type of enhanced surface search capability like the radar — that would be a total game change,” Pappianou said.
The capability could also be useful for search and rescue missions, environmental monitoring and more, opening up a host of other potential customers.
While the bulk of Platform Aero’s work has been with the military, and chiefly the Navy, Pappianou said the aircraft flew a mission with a proprietary radar designed by the University of Kansas to measure snow and ice depths in the Arctic Circle.
The UAV flew out of Alaska’s Northern Slope — and in temperatures of 15 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit — for its mission on behalf of the NASA Goddard Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory and the University of Kansas Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets.
Creating another potential mission set for the UAV, Platform Aero has begun working with Naval Air Systems Command on a phase one small business innovation research project to demonstrate the UAV’s use in anti-submarine warfare.
Pappianou said the company has two ideas for how Vanilla Unmanned could contribute. First, the UAV could potentially haul some smaller ASW sensors.
“The theory is, could you have an autonomous system or family of systems ... just constantly searching, and they’re able to be up in the air much, much longer than some of the manned assets. And then when they find something, being able to report back, alert back home, and then you can scramble your manned asset to go to that point — so you give yourself a lot more surge capacity, and also ideally you’d be saving budget because you don’t need as many really expensive manned [flight hours] if they’re only getting called up for possible hits,” he said, referring primarily to the manned P-8A Poseidon aircraft that conduct ASW flights.
Alternatively, he said, P-8s and helicopters drop sonobuoys into the water as part of their ASW missions. The sonobuoys are dropped in a pattern, and a transmitter stays on the surface while a hydrophone sinks down into the water column. Pappianou said the sonobuoys’ battery life far exceeds how long the P-8s or helicopters remain overhead listening.
“So when those aircraft go back home because they’re running low on fuel, you still have this sonobuoy field that you laid out that’s still pinging away, but there’s no one to hear it. So, could you do a manned-unmanned teaming approach where the sonobuoy field is dropped and Vanilla is the long legs sitting, kind of mother-goosing, over those sonobuoys until they run out of battery?” he said.
For that phase one project, Platform Aero and NAVAIR are in discussions about specific payloads and sensors, and then doing the math and engineering to validate how effective those configurations would be and how much endurance the aircraft would get.
By the February or March timeframe, Pappianou said, NAVAIR will decide if there’s enough promise to move into the next phase of integrating the payloads onto the UAV and conducting flight tests.
Platform Aero’s longest relationship is with the Office of Naval Research. ONR Program Officer Lee Mastroianni told Defense News in written comments ONR has been working with the company since July 2019 under a phase two SBIR contract to develop the Vanilla UAV as a reconfigurable platform for long-term loitering missions.
He said ONR was impressed by Platform Aero’s “culture of innovation and a non-exquisite/affordable approach to the problem.”
“One of the main elements of the vision here is providing an alternative to highly capable but extremely expensive and low-quantity [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] platforms. Instead, by using more lower-cost and individually less capable — but good enough — platforms, we can proliferate our sensors in higher quantities across the battlespace. Not only does this allow for ISR access to units at the more tactical and operational levels, it creates high resiliency, as the loss of a platform is not of catastrophic impact in terms of capability or cost,” he said.
Mastroianni said ONR’s goal is not only to help mature technologies but also to force the Navy to think about new ways it could operate in the future if certain technological enablers are available. Something like an eight-day UAV overhead, he said, is wildly different than what they typically plan for when thinking about future operating concepts.
“With the extreme endurance comes the possibility of changing the way in which we provide ISR to the warfighter,” he wrote. “The science and engineering that goes into a platform that can achieve this is interesting enough, but it’s the implications on how it would change how we approach the mission of ISR that are intriguing.”
Mastroianni made clear it’s still early. The tests so far have focused on the endurance, which has gone well, but haven’t moved into other focus areas like payload integration or the UAV’s ability to operate in foul weather, for example.
Still, he rattled off a list of attributes that make ONR interested in continuing this work with Vanilla Unmanned: the cost per flight hour, that it’s modular and open to non-proprietary payloads, its ability to operate from non-improved runways and more.
Asked if he thought the Navy would invest in a single long-endurance UAV or look for a system-of-systems solution to its loitering and long-range needs, he said ONR leans towards a family of capabilities. He said modularity would be important as the rate of technology development and improvement quickens, so that upgrading to a better computer or sensor becomes a matter of rapid integration and fielding, rather than one of developing and procuring a whole new system.
“Since the pace of development on all these pieces is moving at an incredibly fast rate, we need to have the platforms and programs that are agile enough to keep up,” he said.
Pappianou said Platform Aero wants to move quickly to prove its products and see something fielded.
On the long-endurance configuration, he said the company is looking to further push the endurance and the flight envelope. On the multi-payload configuration, he said it wants to demonstrate three- to five-day flights with a full payload, compared to its record live flight of about 50 hours with a heavy payload.
And a third configuration, a vertical takeoff variant advertised as flying 24 hours with a 50-pound payload, will see its first flight in the first half of 2022 with government sponsorship in place.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.