NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Navy has set a course for deploying unmanned aerial vehicles on its manned submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV).

A small, tube-launched unmanned aircraft system, the Aerovironment [AVAV] Blackwing will deploy from submerged vessels and carry either sophisticated intelligence-gathering sensors or a small warhead.

The Navy chose Blackwing as the result of a 2013 cooperative program between the Navy and Special Operations Command to develop an “advanced weapons enhanced by submarine UAS for use against mobile targets” (AWESUM).

AeroVironment Blackwing unmanned aerial system.
AeroVironment Blackwing unmanned aerial system.

Blackwing is an offshoot of the company’s Switchblade kamikaze drone developed for dismounted infantry. When launched from a tube, the aircraft’s wings extend from a folded position and then can be operated by a handheld ground station. If equipped with a warhead, the aircraft itself is a munition that can be rammed into an enemy vessel and detonated.

Other services have several AeroVironment UAS in their inventories, including the RQ-11 Raven, RQ-12 Wasp and RQ-20A Puma small unmanned arcraft used by the Army and Marine Corps. All the systems operate on a common ground control station.

“AeroVironment’s new Blackwing unmanned aircraft system is a valuable new capability that resulted from our team’s close collaboration with, and responsiveness to, the U.S. Navy’s undersea warfare community and the Special Operations community,” Kirk Flittie, AeroVironment vice president and general manager of unmanned aircraft systems, said in a prepared statement.  

The Navy has experimented with robotic and remotely piloted systems for use on, under and above the sea for years. It is in the final stages of operational testing its new high-altitude, long-endurance MQ-4C Triton, made by Northrop Grumman [NOC] Triton, the naval version of the Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk, will fly from land and provide wide-area maritime surveillance for deployed naval vessels.

Attempts to fly unmanned systems off aircraft carriers have met with mixed results. A program to integrate a stealthy unmanned surveillance aircraft on a carrier was moderately successful, then was sidelined as the Navy wrung its hands about what the system should do. Both strike and an aerial refueling capabilities are being considered.

Undersea robots have been considered for mine- and sub-hunting roles but have met with range and endurance challenges. A sensor-carrying large displacement unmanned undersea vehicle is in the works.

The Navy’s Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS) is under development by Textron Systems [TXT], which was awarded $33.8 million in 2014 to provide a common unmanned surface vessel for the program. This includes the surface vehicle, its command-and-control software and mission payload, which are designed for seamless integration into the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a mission module.

All of the Navy’s efforts are aimed at teaming unmanned systems with legacy manned platforms. It plans to perform maritime surveillance, for instance, with both the Triton and P-8A Poseidon working in concert and sharing targeting and location data.

When the Navy’s submarine-launched UAS joint technology development effort was complete in 2015, the final report “strongly encouraged integration of the UAS to the fleet,” AeroVironment said in a statement released Monday in conjunction with the annual Sea Air Space expo in National Harbor, Md.

Blackwing is designed for use in anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) environments where enemy militaries attempt to deny access of U.S. and allied forces to disputed land and sea. It carries a miniature electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) sensor payload, a selective availability anti-spoofing module GPS and the company’s secure digital data link.

“Delivering innovative solutions that enhance our customers’ capabilities benefits the U.S. Navy and USSOCOM (U.S. Special Operations Command), and creates new business opportunities for us.  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 that help our customers operate more safely and effectively.”