US Navy unveils surprise order for ducted-fan UAVs

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The US Navy will usher Honeywell's unmanned ducted-fan technology into operational service later this year, after disclosing a surprise order for 372 vehicles.

All 186 two-vehicle RQ-16A Micro Air Vehicle systems, which includes 93 ground stations, will be delivered between June and November, as the USN rapidly deploys the new hover-and-stare asset to help explosive ordnance disposal teams search for improvised bombs.

"That's fast and, based on our experiment with supporting an in-theatre assessment, we have been standing up a production capability to meet those kinds of demands," says Vaughn Fulton, Honeywell's MAV programme manager.

The 11kg (25lb) RQ-16A will join the USN's growing fleet of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Although the slowest of the US services to embrace unmanned aviation, the USN plans to acquire a portfolio of five classes of UAS. But its newest priority should not displace a pending decision to buy a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system, or a long-term plan to acquire a fleet of small tactical vehicles. "The planned RQ-16A acquisition will not result in any changes to plans for other UAS procurements," says the US Naval Air Systems Command.

The navy order also completes a five-year development and testing cycle for the MAV, which started as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project in 2003. The MAV has also been selected by the US Army to deliver the Class I UAS element of its Future Combat Systems programme, and the RQ-16A also remains in testing with the Miami-Dade County police department for civil purposes, with the US Federal Aviation Administration evaluating the tactics and techniques for certification guidance. Honeywell is currently seeking FAA approval for an experimental certificate for the MAV, which will allow the system to be flown more easily in civil airspace.

The USN has been evaluating early versions of the RQ-16 for about two years. Honeywell staged a mock demonstration in 2006 that "struck a very strong chord" with the navy's evaluation team, says Fulton. About 20 vehicles were deployed to Iraq last year for an assessment sponsored by the navy-led Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal Task Force. That led a "urgent needs statement", which launched the acquisition process.

Honeywell's MAV technology features a backpack-able system with 40min endurance, 40kt (74km/h) airspeed and a 1.5kg payload, which includes a zoom camera and an infrared sensor.