Aurora Flight Sciences will revive production of the Orion ultra-long-endurance unmanned air vehicle (UAV) and the proof-of-concept aircraft will transfer from US Air Force storage to perform a series of demonstrations with the Coast Guard.
A Block 1 configuration of the diesel engine-powered Orion is in development by the Manassas, Virginia-based aviation company to offer as a service for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission by late 2019, says Aurora chairman and chief executive John Langford.
The new design will feature a few almost unnoticeable exterior changes, such as a slightly smaller tailplane surface, he says. More changes are planned for the structures and systems within the vehicle.
The most critical limitation for the proof-of-concept version of the Orion is that it was not built using military airworthiness standards, so it requires high-level approvals within the Pentagon to operate the UAV outside the US Navy’s test range at China Lake, California.
So the Block 1 Orion will be redesigned to meet the military’s specifications for an operational aircraft, Langford says. Aurora is developing new tooling jigs to support Block 1 Orion production.
The new version also will be equipped to communicate with the US military’s intelligence systems.
“It’s an ISR platform and it does no good unless you can plug into the networks which will do the payload exploitation and dissemination, and a lot of that gets into pretty classified stuff,” Langford says.
The Orion was conceived by the US Army at the peak of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009, when military commanders called out for intelligence-collecting platforms that could remain aloft for weeks at a time, rather than hours or about a day.
Aurora originally designed the Orion with hydrogen fuel but switched to JP-8, as the programme transferred from the army’s control to the air force.
The Orion eventually performed a record-breaking 80h flight on 2 December 2014, and landed with 37h of fuel remaining. But the aircraft was moved into long-term storage with no immediate customer willing to fund a production run.
In January 2015, Langford told Flightglobal that Aurora was considering internally financing Orion production. The plan was ultimately approved to build at least one system of three vehicles and associated systems and payloads. Aurora will offer the capability to the military as either a contractor-owned or operated ISR service, in which the customer pays for access to the capability.
In the meantime, the coast guard will experiment with the Orion for ultra-long-endurance surveillance missions over the country’s maritime borders, Langford says.