A Boeing simulation has demonstrated the digital systems and software that will allow the company’s MQ-25 Stingray autonomous refueller to be controlled from the air.
The airframer said on 6 September that a Boeing-led team, working in a lab, showed how three different simulated aircraft could use their existing operational flight software and data links to task four virtual MQ-25s to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Boeing says this capability will be essential in furthering the US Navy (USN) goal of pairing autonomous, unmanned platforms with conventional, manned aircraft – a concept the military calls manned/unmanned teaming (MUM-T).
“Large swaths of ocean could be surveilled, identified and targeted when MQ-25 is teamed with carrier-based assets”, says Don Gaddis, Boeing director of MQ-25 advanced design.
“Through this demonstration, our customers saw how this digital, open approach to MUM-T is key to fielding critical warfighting capability at much lower cost and with greater speed and agility,” he adds.
The airframes involved were digital recreations of the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter, Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and a Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye command and control platform.
Boeing says the demonstration showed how both the P-8A and E-2D could easily task an MQ-25 wingman with an ISR mission specifying only the search area and no-fly zones. The MQ-25 then executed its mission autonomously, including validating the command against its operational constraints, planning its route and conducting its search pattern.
The onboard autonomy framework for the MQ-25, whose primary mission will be refuelling USN carrier air wings, was developed by Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences.
The digital system that allows other aircraft to control the Stingray is based on an open source platform owned by the Department of Defense.
The Pentagon is pushing all of its suppliers to build new applications on so-called “open source software”. The term refers to software in which the original source code is made available for distribution and modification.
In practice, it allows third-party developers to create new applications for the original platform, such as legacy aircraft controlling a new autonomous system.
The US Air Force recently tested the first open-source derived application for a fifth-generation fighter, a Lockheed Martin F-22. The US Army has also made open systems architecture a requirement in its Future Vertical Lift initiative that is developing the service’s next generation of helicopters.
Boeing says the MQ-25, which is still under development, safely achieves the open system goal by creating a “software boundary that decouples MQ-25’s flight safety and flight critical components from mission software and sensor hardware”. That the integration of third-party applications into the Stingray operating system.
In the case of the recent test, the USN’s Naval Air Warfare Center created a new radar search application that was built on a software development kit provided by Aurora Flight Sciences.
“Aurora’s robust software development kit enables our Navy teammates to rapidly integrate new capabilities,” says Graham Drozeski, Aurora’s vice president of government programmes.
He adds that the demonstration met test objectives “for resource sharing between multiple onboard systems and supervisors”.