WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has been resistant to buy ultrahigh-endurance drones, but a recent $48 million investment in the technology could signify that the service is changing its mind about its requirements, the head of Aurora Flight Sciences said.
On Wednesday, Aurora Flight Sciences announced that the Air Force had awarded it a $48 million contract to create a certified version of its Orion medium altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system.
The Orion holds the world record for the longest flight performed by a drone. In December 2014, the UAS stayed aloft for more than 80 hours without needing to land or be refueled, but Aurora claims the aircraft’s endurance can stretch even longer: up to 100 hours with payloads weighing more than 1,000 pounds.
Yet Aurora, now a subsidiary of Boeing, has struggled to get the Air Force to adopt the technology. Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, formerly deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), said in 2015 that the service didn’t have a requirement for an aircraft with more endurance.
But the status quo may be changing. On Thursday, Otto’s successor, Lt. Gen. VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson said that the service intends to release an “ISR flight plan” this spring that articulates the Air Force’s technology, systems architecture and manpower requirements from now until 2035.
“What we’re very hopeful is that the flight plan will recognize the need for very long endurance and very affordable ISR,” said John Langford, Aurora’s CEO and founder. “That’s the niche we’re trying to serve.
“We’re not a penetrating aircraft, we’re not a denied access aircraft, but there are huge amounts of geography in many, many places where American citizens, American forces are deployed or engaged around the world. Places like the South China Sea, places like AFRICOM, that are chronically underserved by long dwell ISR. And for a limited amount of dollars and resources, it only makes sense.”
It will take about two years to certify Orion. Should the Air Force then decide to acquire the system, it would be ready for low rate initial production, he said.
Aurora’s past Orion aircraft were experimental prototypes not hardened for battlefield conditions. To obtain a military type certificate, the company will have to prove every part of the plane — including its structures, engine and datalinks — conforms to the service’s standards.
“You or I, from a hundred yards, probably won’t be able to tell a Block 1 Orion from the current one. They are going to look very similar. Probably the biggest change you’ll be able to see is that the tail will be smaller,” Langford said.
“Underneath the skin, all of the engineering is being redone,” he continued. “There will a lot more tests involved with this — structural tests, electronics tests, software development, a lot of work in the cyber security piece of this so that this can plug into the classified networks that it needs to.”
Since its founding in 1989, Aurora has charted major successes creating experimental planes, especially in the realm of unmanned and autonomous aircraft. It’s had a tougher time spinning off those technologies into a product line, Langford acknowledged.
“In the past, Aurora has been — we think of ourselves as very innovative, very focused on our customers,” he said. “But we’re still a 500 or 600 person company … and there are naturally limits to how far any small team can actually push one of these [technology development] programs, turning it into a program of record, a real product, deployed for multiple customers.”
That’s where Boeing comes in.
Boeing finalized its acquisition of Aurora in November, and executives see the relationship as one that provides major benefits for both companies: While Boeing will get to funnel Aurora’s developmental technologies into its massive commercial and defense businesses, Aurora will be able to harness the power of Boeing’s marketing and production arms, Langford said.
For example, Boeing could position the Orion in the international market as a lower-cost alternative to its P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft or — for Poseidon customers like the U.S. Navy — a complimentary capability.
“We see it as being a perfect partner for the P-8,” he said. The P-8 is “full of very sophisticated sensors, including weapons, right? So you could go out and sow a sonobuoy field, for example, and the Orion could follow that field for the next five days instead of the couple hours that the current systems follow a sonobuoy field.”