General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) has achieved a groundbreaking milestone in the field of unmanned aviation with the successful deployment and retraction of a towline featuring a “smart end feature” from a GA-ASI MQ-20 Avenger unmanned aircraft system.
According to the company’s latest press release, the demonstration, which took place on September 20, 2023, over Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, marks a significant advancement in the Aerial Recovery System for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems/Air-Launched Effects (SUAS/ALE).
During this remarkable demonstration, a hoist from Breeze-Eastern, equipped with GA-ASI’s innovative smart end feature, was seamlessly integrated into the Avenger’s payload bay. While in flight, the towline was deployed away from the Avenger to an optimal distance for aerial recovery. The smart end feature showcased its capability by wirelessly transmitting its position back to the Avenger, affirming its potential to transmit data to a nearby SUAS/ALE for aerial recovery. The smart end feature’s “deployed” position aligns with GA-ASI’s multi-degree-of-freedom finite element catenary models, reinforcing its potential in SUAS/ALE aerial recovery.
Mike Atwood, Vice President of Advanced Programs at GA-ASI, highlighted the significance of this achievement, stating, “Integrating air-launched UAS from Group 5 unmanned aircraft is possible, in part, thanks to advances in relative navigation technology, complex towline analysis, and multi-aircraft control being pioneered by GA-ASI. We are excited to see this technology enable long-range kill chains from today’s manned and unmanned systems, supporting operations in highly contested environments.”
The capabilities introduced by this advancement go beyond simple captive carry back to the base. The SUAS/ALE, once recovered, can be refueled, recharged, and rearmed, then redeployed from the host aircraft. This aerial redeployment capability allows the SUAS/ALE to conduct its own orbits from airborne launch and recovery positions. Consequently, unmanned aircraft like GA-ASI’s Avenger or MQ-9A Reaper can act as mobile command centers, forming a network of SUAS/ALEs in a persistent, expansive grid. This grid supports various functions, including surveillance, electronic attack, enemy air defense suppression, communication pathways, and joint all-domain mobile command and control, extending over days or even weeks.
Breeze-Eastern’s commercial-off-the-shelf helicopter rescue hoists played a pivotal role in this advancement, with performance capabilities that meet or exceed system requirements. They provide a high Technology Readiness Level (TRL) and offer a low-risk solution to ensure successful SUAS/ALE aerial recovery. Throughout the hoist integration and flight testing, Breeze-Eastern provided technical and logistical support, contributing to the achievement of this groundbreaking milestone.
Ian Azeredo, Breeze-Eastern’s Chief Engineer, commended GA-ASI’s achievement, saying, “With this milestone demonstration, GA-ASI has once again awed the aerospace industry. The professionalism and surgical ingenuity shown in the integration phase by the Aerial Recovery team all but guarantee future program success.”
This innovative aerial recovery concept incorporates a towline and smart end feature, which serves as a beacon and mechanical interface for aerial recovery. The SUAS/ALE calculates its precise position relative to the smart end feature, enabling navigation into towline intercept and a maneuver to capture the end feature. Once securely on the towline, the SUAS/ALE folds its wings and stops its engine to transition into a passively stable towed body. A podded hoist aboard the capital ship then reels in the SUAS/ALE to a captive carriage state, allowing both platforms to return to the base together.
As indicated by the company’s press release, this achievement is set to redefine the possibilities for unmanned aviation and opens new avenues for deploying and retrieving unmanned systems in various operational scenarios.