The drone autonomously deploys its X-wing airfoil and after achieving altitude assumes a horizontal flight configuration [Credit: NAVSEA-AUTEC]

Drone launched from submerged submarine by US Navy

An all-electric, fuel cell-powered drone has been successfully launched from a submerged submarine by US Navy researchers.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), developed by the  US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), was fired from the Los Angeles class USS Providence’s torpedo tube using a 'Sea Robin' launch vehicle system designed to fit within an empty Tomahawk launch canister used for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Once deployed from the canister, the Sea Robin launch vehicle rose to the ocean surface where it appeared as a spar buoy. The drone then vertically launched on command and successfully flew for several hours streaming live video back to Providence and surface support vessels before landing at a naval base in the Bahamas.

The project was funded by SwampWorks at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Department of Defense Rapid Reaction Technology Office and took less than six years to get from concept to fleet demonstration while providing significant cost savings when compared to traditional programs that often take decades to produce results.

"Developing disruptive technologies and quickly getting them into the hands of our sailors is what our SwampWorks program is all about," said Craig Hughes, acting director of Innovation at ONR. "This demonstration really underpins ONR's dedication and ability to address emerging fleet priorities."

The XFC UAS (eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System) is a fully autonomous, all-electric fuel cell powered folding wing UAV with an endurance of greater than six hours thanks to a non-hybridised power plant that supports the propulsion system and payload.

The drone has useful applications in mission critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the US Navy's submarine force as its flight endurance enables relatively low cost, low altitude intelligence missions.

An electrically assisted take off system lifts the plane vertically out of its container, which enables a very small footprint launch such as from a pickup truck or small surface vessel.

"This six-year effort represents the best in collaboration of a Navy laboratory and industry to produce a technology that meets the needs of the special operations community," said Dr Warren Schultz, program developer and manager at NRL.

"The creativity and resourcefulness brought to this project by a unique team of scientists and engineers represents an unprecedented paradigm shift in UAV propulsion and launch systems."

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