A budget crisis in Congress has caused Aurora Flight Sciences' Orion unmanned air system to stall out before it even leaves the ground.

Officially unveiled in November 2010, Orion was selected by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in late August to meet the objectives of the medium altitude global ISR and Ccommunications (Magic) Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD). The programme's goal is to demonstrate a five-day flight of the Orion at 20,000ft with a 453kg (1,000lb) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payload.

Before the contract announcement, the company had hoped to make a first flight with the UAV in late October 2010 but agreed to slow the schedule for further evaluation of payload options, concepts of operations and requirements by the air force, Aurora says.

First flight under the $4.7 million contract was originally expected in mid-2011. But the funding is considered "2011 money," and even though the fiscal year began 1 October 2010, the US Congress has been unable to come to an agreement on a Pentagon budget for fiscal 2011. Instead, it has passed a series of stop-gap measures - continuing resolutions (CR) that keep the military funded at fiscal 2010 levels while debate rages.

Orion is just one of the casualties of the CR, which does not allow for new programmes to start even though the funds have been awarded and puts the Pentagon about $23 billion short of the anticipated 2011 budget. Aurora says it is like having to sit and look at the money in a glass box - it is there but cannot be touched.

Once the programme gets off the ground, Aurora expects Orion to be relatively low-risk for for a demonstration project. Rather than the liquid hydrogen fuel route other experimental high-altitude, ultra-long endurance aircraft are following, its design is powered by the same Austro diesel engines used on the company's already-flying Centaur optionally piloted vehicle, based on the Diamond DA42.

Source: Flight International