The US Air Force has awarded Aurora Flight Sciences a $48 million contract to develop a certificated version of the ultra-long-endurance Orion unmanned air vehicle, possibly reviving the unmanned air system's prospects after a four-year hiatus.
The Air Force Research Laboratory selected Aurora more than a decade ago for an ultra long endurance study contract to explore a new surveillance aircraft that could exceed the endurance limits of the USAF’s MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Orion demonstrated a record-setting 80h flight in 2014 but the air force’s chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance argued the service had no operational requirement for a multi-day, long-endurance unmanned aircraft.
But Aurora Flight Sciences continued to market the aircraft as an option for meeting the USAF's seemingly insatiable appetite for aerial surveillance coverage. Boeing acquired the Virginia-based company in October, giving the previously small contractor significantly more sales support.
The twin-engine Orion is designed to fly for more than 100 hours and carry payloads over 453kg (1,000lb).
In November, US Senate appropriators proposed adding $40 million to the still-pending fiscal year 2018 defence budget for an “ultra long endurance aircraft”. The contract awarded by the USAF to complete Orion certification uses funds from the fiscal 2017 budget, an Aurora spokesperson tells FlightGlobal.