By Calvin Biesecker

Boeing [BA] said recently it has successfully completed a series of tests using modified ship-based ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to track simulated biological plumes, collect the airborne agents, return the craft to the ship to retrieve the samples and then re-launch the aircraft.

The tests, which began last November and ended in February, followed receipt of an $8.2 million contract from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in March 2006 (Defense Daily, June 6, 2006). Under the Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD), Boeing modified two 50-pound class Insitu Group-built ScanEagles for the Biological Combat Assessment System (BCAS) program.

One UAV is equipped with four bio-collectors and a plume sensor to collect samples. The other bird is outfitted with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors for both reconnaissance and bomb damage assessment of weapons of mass destruction facilities. The ISR aircraft was also equipped with video storage capabilities for later download and beyond line of sight photo capture. Both aircraft flew simultaneously in support of the mission.

For the main collection tests, the UAVs were flown from Naval Air Systems Command 38 research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico and guided to the test range at Eglin AFB, Fla., to do beyond line of sight sample collection. A total of eight operational missions were flown in late January, with seven successfully intercepting the simulated biological plumes.

In one of the missions, Boeing’s engineers tried a different approach to the plume interception but it didn’t work, Keith Coleman, the company’s program manager for the BCAS ATD, said on a conference call with reporters. No big deal. In the next test, the company went back to the standard intercept approach and was successful, he said.

After the aircraft completed each collection and assessment operations, they were recovered aboard the research vessel where the sample material was then analyzed. The aircraft were also decontaminated using a very low hydrogen peroxide system that is less concentrated than what is found in a drug store and didn’t require any special handling for shipboard use, Coleman said.

So what was new?

Beyond line-of-sight control of the 50-pound class of UAV, the biological sample collection by the UAV and then recovery aboard a ship, the decontamination, and re-launch were all new, Coleman said.

Developmental testing of the BCAS also showed that the UAVs could be controlled from ranges in excess of 2,500 miles, Coleman said. For the operational mission, the requirement was for a 250 nautical mile range and a one-hour loiter time, but earlier testing demonstrated the long-range control via a satellite link, he said.

The original contract contained options for production and additional upgrades to do onboard bio-identification. Those options have not been exercised, Coleman said. DTRA is interested in doing a follow-on program but Coleman didn’t know what that would consist of.

Boeing had several teammates for the ATD, including Insitu Group, Midwest Research Inc., which provided the biological collection system and particle counter in the UAV, Applied Research Associates, which worked on plume tracking and evaluation, and L-3 Communications‘ [LLL] Titan business unit, which provided the decontamination capability.