Unmanned air vehicle maker Aurora Flight Sciences has completed a one-year test programme incorporating a series of autonomous take-offs and landings with an "optionally manned" Cessna 337 Skymaster piston twin flying near Aurora's home base in northern Virginia.

Although autonomous take-off and landing capabilities exist for other UAVs, Aurora says its experience with the practice to date apply only to its vertical take-off and landing UAVs. "While Aurora has routinely operated vertical take-off and landing unmanned aircraft in a fully autonomous mode, this marks the first time we have performed fully autonomous take-offs and landings in a conventional take-off and landing configuration," says Rob Searle, Aurora's chief engineer for the programme.

Although Aurora has been quiet on who is sponsoring the work and on what equipment is on board, US Army involvement appears likely, as Aurora says the technology will be incorporated into the service's high-altitude, long-endurance Orion demonstrator.

Autonomous guidance, navigation and control hardware very likely came from Rockwell Collins' Controls Technologies subsidiary, formerly Athena Technologies, as the company provides other such systems to Aurora and has said recently that it has been supporting several "optionally manned" flight-test programmes.

Flight tests with the Skymaster, which Aurora calls "Chiron", took place between March and June with a pilot and test engineer on board at all times for safety reasons.

Source: Flight International