US achieves first submarine launch of unmanned aircraft

An unmanned aerial system has been launched successfully from a submerged US Navy submarine. 

When fully developed the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) expects the system to provide mission critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the US Navy’s submarine force.

Operating under support of the Los Angeles class USS Providence (SSN 719) and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center-Newport Division (NUWC-NPT), the NRL-developed XFC UAS — eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System— was fired from the submarine’s torpedo tube using a Sea Robin launch vehicle.

According to NRL, the Sea Robin launch system was designed to fit inside an empty Tomahawk launch canister (TLC).

Once deployed from the TLC, the Sea Robin launch vehicle with integrated XFC rose to the sea’s surface where it appeared as a spar buoy.

The XFC then vertically launched from Sea Robin and flew a successful mission demonstrating live video capabilities streamed back to Providence and surface support vessels before landing at the Naval Sea Systems Command Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), Andros, Bahamas.

‘The creativity and resourcefulness brought to this [six year] project by a unique team of scientists and engineers represents an unprecedented paradigm shift in UAV propulsion and launch systems,’ said Dr Warren Schultz, program developer and manager, NRL.

The NRL Chemistry and Tactical Electronic Warfare Divisions team includes the design-builder of the Sea Robin, Oceaneering International Inc; fuel cell developer Protonex Technology Corp; and NUWC-NPT’s Autonomous and Defensive Systems Department for Temporary Alteration (TEMPALT) and test demonstration support.

The XFC is a fully autonomous, all electric fuel cell powered folding-wing UAS with an endurance of greater than six hours.

The non-hybridised power plant supports the propulsion system and payload for a flight endurance that NRL said delivers relatively low cost, low altitude, ISR missions.

The XFC UAS uses an electrically assisted take off system which lifts the plane vertically out of its container and therefore, enables a very small footprint launch such as from a pickup truck or small surface vessel.

The project was funded by SwampWorks at the Office of Naval Research and the Department of Defense Rapid Reaction Technology Office.