Air Force News

Unmanned combat air vehicle technologies mature at AFRL

Released: 22 Feb 2000

by Sue Baker
Aeronautical Systems Center Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFPN) -- In early 2001, when America's first unmanned combat air vehicle flies above the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Dryden Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., it will carry more than a dozen unique technologies matured by researchers and engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory here.

Working side-by-side with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency officials, about 100 full- and part-time AFRL workers in seven directorates are helping Department of Defense decision-makers determine the right mix of critical aerospace technologies for the UCAV system.

A $140 million, advanced technology demonstration jointly funded by the Air Force, DARPA and Boeing Co., the UCAV is being developed as an affordable weapon system that expands tactical mission options for U.S. warfighters, while providing new revolutionary air power for two lethal roles: suppression of enemy air defenses and precision strike.

"We're ensuring that AFRL will be able to (transfer) mature robust technologies into the UCAV system, as the (advanced technology demonstration) enters Phase III, risk reduction and operational evaluations, slated to begin in late 2002," said Maj. Mark Garner, program manager and technology integration and development team leader in the lab's Air Vehicles Directorate.

"Since March 1999, when Phase II began, our team has categorized more than 145 current AFRL research technologies that could be used in UCAVs. We've divided them into categories I and II, depending on the level of risk reduction they bring to the program, and when they might be needed," Garner said.

"The category I technologies are more near-term (by 2005)," he said. "The category II technologies will be applied later, during the engineering, manufacturing and development phase, and the initial operational capability of the UCAV system, now planned for approximately 2010."

Such promising technologies center in 13 research areas, currently managed by seven of AFRL's nine directorates, according to Garner. They include information collection and fusion; information assessment and presentation; autonomous targeting identification and recognition; miniature munitions systems; fluidless power, actuation and cooling; low-observable antennas; miniaturized modular training environment; mission management and planning; higher-thrust, limited-life, storable engines; and low-cost structures and manufacturing.

"By identifying potential UCAV technologies early on, during the present detail, design, fabrication and flight-test phase, we're trying to 'buy down' (reduce) the risk for Phase III," Garner said. "Each technology area has (descending levels of risk) and demonstrations scheduled from now through 2003, to help AFRL determine how specific, matured technologies might benefit UCAV development."

One example of a UCAV advanced technology demonstration risk-reduction effort: investigation of low-observable air data, directed by Stanley Pruitt and Dan Thompson of the Air Vehicles Directorate.

"If you had a radar antenna or refueling boom projecting into the air from the surface of a UCAV, that would significantly cut down on its mandated stealthiness," said David Lanman, deputy chief of UCAV advanced technology demonstration. "Our AFRL researchers are working with design engineers at Boeing's Phantom Works in Seattle to make UCAV systems as low-observable as possible, to achieve their intended missions."

Phase I of the UCAV advanced technology demonstration began in May 1998, with award of contracts worth $4 million each to Northrop Grumman Corp., Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, Boeing Co. and Raytheon Systems Co.

In March, DARPA and the Air Force selected Boeing to continue Phase II of the UCAV program. During Phase II, Boeing will complete the UCAV demonstration system, which will involve fabrication of two vehicles and a reconfigurable mission control station. In addition, Boeing will develop and integrate critical technologies being matured by AFRL researchers; continue risk-reduction activities; and conduct flight tests. There is a priced option, currently unfunded, to continue the program into Phase III, according to program officials.

"The Boeing UCAV concept will exploit real-time on-board and off-board sensors for quick detection, identification and location of fixed, relocatable, and mobile targets," said Lt. Col. Mike Leahy, DARPA UCAV advanced technology demonstration program manager. "The system's secure communications and advanced cognitive decision aids will provide ground-based, human operators with situational awareness and positive air vehicle control necessary to authorize munitions release.

"This tail-less, stealthy air vehicle will carry multiple, advanced, precision-guided munitions, while relaying confirmed battlefield damage back to its mission control system," Leahy said. "Stored in ready-to-ship containers until needed, the UCAV will be able to deploy and operate globally in concert with manned (aerospace) expeditionary forces." (Courtesy of Air Force Materiel Command News Service)


* Aeronautical Systems Center
* Air Force Materiel Command
* Air Force Research Laboratory
* Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio