Boeing [BA] told reporters on Monday it believes using its pre-award test asset for 18 months and having an embedded Navy program office will help speed up initial operational capability (IOC) of the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aircraft carrier-based tanker.
Boeing is conducting early learning tests with its pre-award asset, designated T-1, this year and plans to reach ground-based flight tests later in 2019. Using the T-1 will allow the company and Navy to start work on the aircraft now rather than wait to first build the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) aircraft and “miss out on about 18 months of early learning,” Dave Bujold, Boeing MQ-25 program director, told reporters.
“18 months of early learning with an aircraft that gets that software mature faster is probably our single biggest giant step in the direction of getting IOC early,” Bujold added.
He said early learning with T-1 will allow Boeing to show the Navy it is making progress toward test assets and the EMD “that give them confidence to go to the next level on our next milestone.”
Once the EMD aircraft come off the production line, Boeing will be able to just plug in the latest lessons and software from the T-1, getting further along the program timeline, Bujold said.
Boeing previously built T-1 before the contract was awarded and intends to use it “to accelerate our testing and accelerate our learning so when we flip to the Navy’s assets that are in the EMD contract, we have the benefit of having already flown an exceptionally representative but still a Boeing asset,” Bujold said.
Boeing showed off its MQ-25 offering prototype, now T-1 to reporters last year. It was originally built from 2012-2013 as part of the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program (Defense Daily, April 6, 2018).
The company also believes MQ-25 may reach IOC faster because the Navy embedded a program office with Boeing, called a government embedded maritime acceleration team, or GEMAT. The GEMAT ranges from four to 12 people and helps increase the speed of decision-making, decreasing delays and cutting out communications inefficiencies stemming from being at different locations.
Bujold noted the team has the authority to act and decide for the Navy’s program office “right on the spot.”
He added the company and the Navy are also using a shared computer drive to manage standard contract deliverables. Rather than the time ineffective method of mailing stacks of paper that are then re-ordered and confirmed, it is all shared on one computer network.
Boeing also provided an updated schedule of the T-1 and MQ-25 EMD.
On April 28, Boeing moved T-1 from their St. Louis factory next to the St, Louis Lambert International Airport to the MidAmerica Airport, adjacent to Scott Air Force Base. The base has a tower that hosts both a military and civilian runway and the T-1 will be operating on the civilian side.
Bujold explained they moved the aircraft because, among other reasons, Lambert Airport is becoming a busier hub for civilian airlines while MidAmerica is a “much quieter environment.” Boeing plans to get T-1 certified by the FAA under an experimental certificate.
Boeing plans to fly T-1 this year but Bujold was “not willing to specify” when, especially because the schedule may move to whenever the aircraft, supporting data, and team are all ready to go.
However, once T-1 flies it will help advance the EMD program. Bujold said “from an aeronautical engineering perspective, is a very, very strong representation of what we’re delivering in the EMD aircraft.”
The MQ-25 program has two design reviews coming up in 2019; one this summer and another later this calendar year. They will act like progress reviews where the company and Navy will look at how to synchronize the pace for building aircraft systems.
T-1 is expected to build up to thousands of hours of ground test hours and a couple hundred of flight hours. Bujold said their objective is tied to data and program advancement, “so we’re an output-based, not a scheduled-based activity.” This means once one set of activities is complete, they will move on to the next.
Bujold said Boeing plans to freeze the MQ-25 hardware design early in 2020 and freeze software incrementally as they move towards building the EMD aircraft.
Boeing expects the flight test campaign for T-1 to last through the end of FY 2021. “Later on” Boeing intends to move the T-1 to the East Coast, where the aircraft will be hoisted on board an aircraft carrier for deck handling risk reduction and tests, Bujold said. However, the company and Navy are not planning any carrier-based flight tests of T-1.
Instead, T-1 will operate in the hangar deck on and the top deck. Boeing will have the aircraft with sailors and see how they view and interact with it.
The company was unwilling to name which carrier they think will test the T-1. While they have a time period in mind and the carrier port schedules, Bujold said the aircraft timing and carrier availabilities may change.
Boeing did not provide an exact date to start building the EMD aircraft, but it plans to have the EMD start flying in FY 2021.
Last August, Boeing won an $805 million EMD contract to design, develop, build, test, and verify the first four MQ-25s, the first step in the Navy’s plan to buy 72 MQ-25 Stingrays (Defense Daily, Aug. 30, 2018).
IOC was originally set for FY 2026, but the Navy pushed it up to FY 2024. At the time of award, Chief of Naval Operation Adm. John Richardson told reporters he thought the Navy might reach IOC before 2024 and is on a schedule to get the aircraft as fast as it can (Defense Daily, Aug. 31, 2018).