US Navy developing UAS for ship cargo resupply mission

The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) took delivery of a prototype unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in late October, which will be used to demonstrate long-range ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore cargo transportation.

Announced by Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) on November 9, the commercially-sourced platform is now being evaluated by NAWCAD personnel at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland. Known as the Blue Water Maritime Logistics UAS, the system is also being tailored to fit the requirements set by the US Navy’s Military Sealift (MSC) and Fleet Forces Command (FFC). NAWCAD sought an existing UAS that could autonomously transport a 20lb payload to a moving ship at distances of up to 25 miles without refuelling.

The Blue Water Maritime Logistics UAS was handed over to NAS Patuxent River’s resident UAS trials unit, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (UX) 24. The delivery marked the start of civil and military training and system development to better meet MSC’s requirements ahead of trials with the US Navy’s fleet in the Atlantic Ocean throughout 2021.

Blue Water Maritime Logistics UAS [US Navy]
An autonomous UAS, known as the Blue Water Maritime Logistics UAS, conducts a demonstration flight over NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, on November 4, 2020. US Navy

Bill Macchione, NAWCAD’s Blue Water project lead, said: “This requirement is unlike other cargo requirements that online retailers, like Amazon, are exploring. Naval cargo transport requires vehicles that can successfully operate through difficult environments that include heavy winds, open water and pitching vessels at sea.”

NAVAIR states that historic data from navy casualty reports shows that warships “that move to non-mission capable or partially mission capable status often do so due to logistics-related issues.” It added that 90% of deliveries to these ships are logistical, with cargo that weighs less than 50lb. Tactical aircraft, such as the Sikorsky H-60 helicopter and Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, currently cover these missions.

“Recognising the cost and inefficiency of using these aircraft in missions that could be completed by Group-3 size UAS, MSC tapped NAWCAD to demonstrate an ability for an autonomous vehicle to fly these logistics missions,” NAVAIR explained.

NAWCAD solicited industry to demonstrate potentially viable commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) platforms and analysed 65 different platforms before selecting two systems that were deemed advanced enough to partially meet the requirements.

Macchione added: “We planned the demo during NAWCAD’s first Advanced Naval Technology Test Exercise in 2019 because we wanted to test the systems in a realistic and simulated forward-deployed environment. NAWCAD engineers and pilots observed and provided honest naval [assessments] based on which system was easiest to operate and maintain, had a solid design, and required [the] least modification for the mission.”

Manufactured by Austin, Texas-based Skyways, the Blue Water Maritime Logistics UAS was selected as it best met the necessary size, payload capacity and range potential to function within a maritime environment. The platform also allowed for incremental testing by NAWCAD with supporting technologies that would help it to further meet the requirements set by the MSC.

“NAWCAD intends to work with the contractor to create a better fit with the environment where it could potentially operate. We’re excited to get to work on such innovations as folding wings for better handling and ship storage, a dual propulsion system that runs on both electricity and JP-5 [fuel], an internal versus external cargo capacity, and an automatic dependent surveillance broadcast identification system,” Macchione explained.