As three companies continue vying for the contract to develop the MQ-25 Stingray, the US Navy is quietly making progress with the design of the carrier-based, unmanned tanker aircraft’s mission control system.

The Naval Air Warfare Center’s Aircraft Division in Lakehurst, New Jersey, is polling industry sources for a vendor that can develop an interface to plug the MQ-25’s carrier- and shore-based mission control station into the aircraft carrier’s air traffic control system.

The request for information released on 22 November is a further sign that Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) is laying the groundwork for the MQ-25 to be ready to enter service by the mid-2020s.

Last April, NAVAIR announced that a demonstration had validated the first software build for the MD-5 unmanned carrier aviation mission control system (UMCS).

The control system is divided into two components, according to the Lakehurst center’s RFI. The MD-5A will be integrated on the navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers, directing the Boeing F/A-18E/F-sized MQ-25 during takeoffs and landings. The MD-5B will be a shore-based control system, using satellite communications to monitor and control the aircraft during the mission phase.

The MD-5A version of the UMCS must integrate with the shipboard air traffic control system (SATCC). The new interface that Lakehurst is studying would translate audio messages from a human air vehicle operator for the MQ-25 into voice-over internet protocol, so it can communicate with the SATCC. The requirements also include a system that can handle classified plaintext data as well as encrypted ciphertext.

NAVAIR released a request for proposals for the MQ-25 development contract in October. Northrop Grumman withdrew from the competition, leaving three bidders – Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Lockheed Martin – still pursuing the contract.