The US Navy set its aviation course towards an unmanned future last week when top sailor Adm Gary Roughead warned aerospace executives looking to sell him UAVs that he only wants to see sea-based designs: "Otherwise don't even darken by door."
Roughead's keynote address to the AUVSI North America unmanned systems exhibition was the first ever by a chief of naval operations. The show saw a gaggle of new UAV concepts released primarily for maritime applications, pointing to growing momentum behind what so far has been a slow-developing naval market.
The navy's top officer may be seeking to narrow the pool of contenders for a wide-ranging mix of rapidly emerging requirements for new UAVs.
In the last four months, the navy has announced plans to acquire a "persistent sea-based" vertical take-off and landing UAV and a stealthy, unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system.
The AUVSI exhibition also comes three weeks after the navy awarded arguably the most high-profile UAV contract of the year. The Boeing/Insitu Integrator claimed the navy's small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS)/tier II contract. The navy also is developing a maritime version of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
The recent surge of activity is a sharp break from the past decade. In 2009, navy-owned UAVs completed only a fraction of the 225,000 flight hours recorded by the US Air Force and 160,000h flown by the army.
Perhaps explaining the navy's slow progress on fielding UAVs, Roughead noted the challenges posed by operating on ships that sprout a complex network of radiating antennas. "For us in the navy it's a very complex environment to bring an airplane dependent on control networks into a pretty extensive electromagnetic environment like we have on our carriers and even beyond our carriers," he says.
As the navy catches up, it has the opportunity to take the lead on a new generation of UAVs aimed at replacing the MQ-1 Predator/MQ-9 Reaper fleet with an aircraft that can survive in contested airspace. The USAF has put a hold on a process to acquire a new UAV called the MQ-X, but the navy's top officer believes the UCLASS cannot come too soon.