US Army to launch drone from helicopter for first time this year

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The U.S. Army is planning to demonstrate launching an unmanned aircraft system from a rotary-wing platform this year as it looks to how manned and unmanned aircraft will team on the future battlefield.

The service has selected the ALTIUS, the Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated Unmanned System, to launch from a rotary-wing test aircraft — possibly a UH-60 Black Hawk — in the late summer/early fall time frame, Layne Merritt, the Aviation Development Directorate’s chief engineer at the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, told Defense News in an interview at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual summit on April 26.

The first test won’t be a direct launch of the system, he said, but is designed to understand the implications of launching something like a drone from underneath a rotary-wing system at low altitude.

“It’s a complex aerodynamic issue,” Merritt said, so the first drop will instruct scientists about “the air flows and the interfaces and the launch dynamics so that the very next launch can be a direct launch.”

The Army plans to use a common launcher that could either be the rocket pods or a Hellfire launcher and will directly launch the UAS from a helicopter next year following the first test.

Merritt noted it isn’t a first when it comes to directly launching missiles and rockets off a platform, but those systems have one propulsion system. And in the case of a drone, it could be a slow, loitering system with small propellers that will have to become activated at launch, and the downdraft of a helicopter could blow it away.

The Army doesn’t just see its UAS teaming with manned aircraft like it does now with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and Shadow UAS, but envisions more advanced teaming than the current concept of manned-unmanned teaming — or MUM-T — allows.

“Today, manned-unmanned teaming is an operator inside of a cockpit taking control of his sensor or whole aircraft, a Shadow or a Gray Eagle UAS,” Merritt said. “While he is doing that, that is all he is doing; he can’t do anything else; he has to hand that UAS back over to its ground controller and it can continue the mission.”

What the Army now envisions for future UAS, falls in three categories, Merritt said. One is where an aircraft operates away from the unmanned fleet. Then there will be UAS that operate in and among the manned formation where levels of autonomy will dictate how close. Lastly, the Army wants what it’s calling “air-launched effects,” where an unmanned system launches from a helicopter at tactical altitudes.

This means the UAS can’t be dropped like modern systems because of the low altitude in which a helicopter flies ― they must be directly launched, Merritt said.

By employing UAS in such a way, they will become more important for missions beyond only surveillance and limited attacks, as is the current situation, Merritt explained.

“They could be a decoy, communications relay. We could send them ahead to do reconnaissance and targeting. It could be a jammer, we have several electronic warfare payloads,” he said. “They could simply be carrying supplies and resupply. They could have aircraft survivability equipment that protects the formation, as opposed to what we have to carry on the aircraft now, so you’ve changed the whole paradigm.”

The critical enabler of all of the advanced teaming concepts, Merritt added, is autonomy. “You cannot any longer have to be operating the unmanned system. We have to move to limited autonomy or supervised autonomy, and eventually we could envision fleet autonomous vehicles.”

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