NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Textron Systems has its Aerosonde Small Unmanned Aircraft System deployed on one U.S. Navy destroyer in the Pacific and will be operating on a second by the end of the year, a company official told Defense News.
The Aerosonde system had been operating off the Navy expeditionary sea base Hershel “Woody” Williams for three years, with the system carrying an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payload and a wide-area search payload to support maritime operations in the Atlantic, Wayne Prender, Textron’s senior vice president for air systems, said in a March 31 interview.
In September, the Navy awarded the company a multi-year contract to integrate and operate the air system on two U.S. 7th Fleet-based destroyers. The first ship is now deployed following an integration period and operational evaluation.
After a first flight in March, the aircraft and destroyer “are now sailing in a full operational capacity in support of 7th Fleet and their real-world missions,” Prender said.
“We really believe that Aerosonde and its operations are setting conditions for future unmanned Navy programs by providing real-world operational deployable mission sets, really showcasing the value of organic air assets and unmanned aircraft assets to those ship captains,” he said, noting that the two ships involved are a Flight I and a Flight II Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that do not have a hangar and therefore don’t have a helicopter permanently onboard.
“Our small footprint and our streamlined logistics really enable a ship and that ship’s captain and its crew that would otherwise have no eye in the sky, we provide them that organic capability at a fraction of the cost of a manned system and utilizing common logistics that they already have on board,” he added.
Prender made clear that Textron isn’t trying to replace any manned helicopters on surface ships. But, he said, for those that do not have a hangar, the Aerosonde unmanned air vehicle can fold up and tuck away in small spaces in the destroyer, staying out of the way and then getting set up and in the air in less than an hour when needed.
For those ships that do have hangars and organic helicopters, Aerosonde could supplement the helos and do ISR and other missions at a much lower cost, he said, preserving the manned helicopters for more pressing missions only they can accomplish.
Textron employees are deployed on the destroyer today, operating the UAV as a contractor-owned/contractor-operated asset. The Navy essentially pays for the data the UAV obtains, which is piped directly into the combat information center on the ship and used by the crew to understand the environment and plan their missions.
Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Lorin Selby said in an April 5 speech at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space conference that he wanted to look more seriously at this CO/CO model in the future, saying the Navy didn’t need to buy hardware in some cases but rather needed to buy the ability to gather data. Whereas the Navy often falls in the trap of buying something with a lengthy service life, meaning the technology eventually becomes obsolete and the service has to pay to keep modernizing the system, the CO/CO model being used with Textron allows the Navy to get the data it needs while allowing Textron to appropriately balance upgrades and technology insertion.
Prender said there are several ways to expand today’s operations, if the Navy chooses to do so. First, he said, he hoped that the successful deployment on Pacific destroyers would encourage the Navy to expand to more ships and more ship classes. The contract could even be set up so that a certain number of Aerosonde UAVs and Textron teams move from one ship to another, based on mission needs.
Second, he said, Textron or third-party vendors could develop additional payloads. Textron today uses the ISR and wide area search payloads as well as an automatic identification system tracker payload off Navy ships. The Aerosonde also uses a lidar and a synthetic aperture radar payload in support of European Maritime Safety Agency missions.
Others could be developed for areas including communications relay, allowing for an unmanned-unmanned teaming opportunity.
Textron also makes a Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle as part of the Navy’s mine countermeasures mission package for the Littoral Combat Ship program. The CUSV is limited in range by its line-of-sight communications with the LCS, Prender said, but using an Aerosonde UAV as a communications relay could untether the USV from the manned ship.
“As we start to expand the footprint of our unmanned aircraft systems in the Navy, and that starts to overlap with the unmanned surface vehicle footprint that the Navy is employing, you can start to stitch those two together and, with a simple data link relay, which we’ve demonstrated, you can extend the reach of the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle beyond its limited LCS line-of-sight range, kind of pushing that CUSV over the horizon. And so that unmanned-unmanned teaming gives the CUSV greater standoff range. It also provides an eye in the sky where you can do interrogation of potential targets and threats and then allow the CUSV to take action on those assets, whether it be in a mine countermeasure mission, a surface warfare mission or search and rescue mission. So we’re definitely excited about seeing the potential growth of unmanned surface and unmanned aircraft systems throughout the Navy as the footprint starts to expand,” he said.
Prender said the company would be working to get the second Pacific-based destroyer ready to employ the Aerosonde later this year, as well as using the first deployed system to support Navy exercises and experimentation.
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.