The U.S. Navy has signed off on buying and deploying small reconnaissance drones that can be tube-launched from submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles.
California-based AeroVironment Inc., a maker of small unmanned aircraft systems, announced this week at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space exposition at National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., that the Navy had decided to go with its "Blackwing" drones following successful testing last year.
The firm could not comment on unit costs or the total buy from the Navy. "We're still working that out with the Navy," said David Sharpin, vice president for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Business Development at AeroVironment, but the Navy was requesting funding in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget for 150 Blackwings.
Sharpin said the Blackwings -- only about 20 inches long and weighing about four pounds -- fold up into a three-inch wide canister that can be tube-launched from the submarine. Once the canister clears the surface, the Blackwing pops out and its wings unfold. Sharpin would not give a range for the Blackwing but said its electric motor provides about 60 minutes of flight time.
The drone's miniaturized electro-optical and infrared sensors, as well as its anti-spoofing GPS and a secure digital data link, were designed to be the "eyes and ears" of the fleet and enhance the Navy's ability to counter the advances made by potential adversaries, such as China, in developing" "anti-access, area denial (A2AD)" weapons.
"In addition to operating from undersea vehicles, Blackwing can also be integrated with and deployed from a wide variety of surface vessels and mobile ground vehicles to provide rapid response reconnaissance capabilities," Kirk Flittie, AeroVironment vice president and general manager of unmanned aircraft systems, said in a company news release.
AeroVironment has been working on the concept of the underwater launch of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) since 2006, leading to a Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD) for the Navy last year that resulted in a "strong recommendation to transition the capability into the fleet."
The firm has already supplied the military with other small UAVs such as the Raven, the Wasp, the Puma and the Switchblade for use by infantry units, and has also notched up sales of small UAVs to more than 30 foreign governments.