Piasecki Aircraft will soon stage a test flight for a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) demonstrator designed to reduce airframe fatigue levels for the US Navy's fleet of existing and future maritime patrol aircraft.

The roughly 350kg (800lb) Turais aircraft is a wing and bomb bay launched UAV with multiple payloads. It is sponsored by PMA-290, the US Navy programme office that manages the existing P-3C Orion and future P-8A Poseidon.

The UAV would be launched at high-altitude, extend its wing and tail control surfaces, then dive down to low-altitude, said Joe Cosgove, Piasecki Aircraft's director of aircraft programmes.

With a 6.5hr endurance and 150nm range, the UAV's onboard sensor would investigate surface targets and transmit the video or imagery to the mother aircraft.

The UAV is designed to be expendable after it completes its mission, but programme officials are debating whether to add a recovery mechanism, Cosgrove said.

Piasecki has also proposed adapting the aircraft to other aircraft, including the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and Sikorsky MH-60R/S Romeo/Sierra.

Decades of accumulated flying hours at low altitude have exposed alarming airframe fatigue levels for P-3Cs, which has required an urgent service life extension programme to keep the fleet airworthy.

Turais would allow the P-3C and its replacement P-8A fleet to remain at high-altitude and still monitor surface targets beneath clouds. The UAV also could be launched into potentially hostile areas for unmanned aircraft.

For example, Cosgrove noted that the USN wishes to avoid the 2001 incident when an EP-3E ARIES II aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in China.

The first flight test of a full-scale aeromechanical demonstrator is planned by the end of the year. However, the current demonstrator would not be powered.

A potential follow-on programme, which remains unfunded, would integrate a fuel system and powerplant on the Turais, and complete initial flight trials.

Source: Flight International