Boeing advances manned-unmanned teaming with MQ-25 Stingray

Boeing announced on September 6 that it has digitally demonstrated a new open autonomy architecture for the MQ-25A Stingray carrier-based aerial refuelling unmanned air vehicle that will allow the US Navy to increase mission effectiveness by integrating manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) capability at speed and scale.

The non-proprietary architecture, based on the government-owned Open Mission System specification, is the foundation for advanced MUM-T. A Boeing-led team virtually demonstrated how other aircraft can use MQ-25’s architecture and task it to conduct tanking and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions – all within the mission airspace and without traditional communications with the ship-based ground control station. Boeing’s MUM-T demonstration included Northrop Grumman’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye command and control (C2) aircraft, Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol/reconnaissance aircraft and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet fighter jet.

MQ-25A Stingray
The Boeing MQ-25A Stingray prototype - registration N234MQ (T-1) - carrying a Cobham air refuelling pod similar to those currently in use on US Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. Boeing

Using their existing operational flight programme software and datalinks, the aircraft safely and efficiently tasked four virtual, autonomous MQ-25s to conduct ISR missions. The F/A-18 also used its advanced tactical data links and Boeing’s conceptual ‘Project Black Ice’ crew vehicle interface, which significantly reduced aircrew workload.  

Don ‘BD’ Gaddis, director, MQ-25 Advanced Design, said: “Large swaths of ocean could be surveilled, identified and targeted when MQ-25 is teamed with carrier-based assets such as the E-2D or the land-based P-8A patrol aircraft. Through this demonstration, our customers saw how this digital, open approach to MUM-T is key to fielding critical warfighting capability at much lower cost and with greater speed and agility.”

Boeing said that, for example, the demonstration showed how both the P-8A and E-2D could easily task an MQ-25 teammate with an ISR mission specifying only the search area and no-fly zones. Using an onboard autonomy framework developed by Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, the MQ-25 autonomously did the rest – including validating the command against its operational constraints, planning its route and conducting its search pattern, among many other tasks.

Aurora also created and demonstrated a prototype platform abstraction layer – a software boundary that decouples MQ-25’s flight safety and flight critical components from mission software and sensor hardware. This commercial best practice allows third-party app integration on the MQ-25. Using an Aurora-provided software development kit, the US Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division created a new radar search application for the MQ-25 that was successfully used during the demonstration.

MQ-25 Stingray take-off [Boeing]
Boeing's MQ-25A test asset (registration N234MQ 'T1') completed its first flight on September 19, 2019. Boeing

Graham Drozeski, vice president of Government Programs for Aurora Flight Sciences, said: “Aurora's robust software development kit enables our Navy teammates to rapidly integrate new capabilities. The platform abstraction demonstration met test objectives for resource sharing between multiple onboard systems and supervisors, and these efforts will greatly reduce government test and certification costs as new capabilities are added over time.”

The demonstration was aligned to the future warfighting capabilities in the US Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework. Boeing will continue to refine the autonomy, sensors, interface exchanges and crew vehicle interfaces required for MUM-T.

The MQ-25 is being developed as the world’s first operational, carrier-based unmanned aircraft, capable of providing aerial refuelling and ISR capabilities that will improve capability and versatility for the carrier air wings and carrier strike groups. Eventually, the US Navy plans for all Nimitz- and Ford-class aircraft carriers to be MQ-25 capable. The first development prototype of the MQ-25 (registration N234MQ 'T-1') completed its maiden flight from Mid-America St Louis Airport, Illinois, on September 19, 2019.

The US Navy plans to acquire 72 MQ-25s, the first four of which will be operated by Unmanned Carrier Launched Multi-Role Squadron 10 (VUQ-10), which will be the Fleet Replacement Squadron, based at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Naval Base Ventura County, California. This will be followed later by the stand-up of two operational squadrons, VUQ-11 and VUQ-12, which will deploy five-aircraft detachments to work with the E-2 Hawkeye squadrons on each carrier. The first production delivery to the US Navy is scheduled for 2024 and initial operational capability is planned for 2025.