Military OEM passes two milestones in unmanned aircraft contracts

Aurora will design and fabricate the ribs and skins for the 400-ft long wing and the solar collection panels on Boeing's SolarEagle unmanned aircraft.

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Aurora Flight Sciences (Manassas, Va.) reported on Jan. 9 that it has been awarded a contract by Boeing Defense, Space and Security (St. Louis, Mo.) to design and fabricate structural components for the Boeing SolarEagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The announcement followed a Jan. 3 report that Aurora had delivered the first complete shipset of composite aerospace structures to Northrop Grumman Corp. for the U.S. Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance unmanned aircraft system (BAMS UAS, see photo) program.

SolarEagle is being developed under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Vulture program. During testing, the SolarEagle demonstrator will fly at high altitudes above 60,000 ft/18,288m for 30 days, harvesting solar energy during the day that will be stored in fuel cells and used to provide power through the night. Aircraft that can stay aloft for extended periods can function as pseudo-satellites for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and communication applications.

Aurora will design and fabricate the ribs and skins for the 400-ft/122m long wing and the solar collection panels. The work includes components for both a subscale test article and a flight demonstrator. “Aurora will have to push the limits of materials and the imagination to create answers to the demanding requirements of this very large yet gossamer aircraft,” says Tom Clancy, Aurora’s vice president and chief technology officer. “We are delighted to have been chosen for such an important role. Boeing recognized the value that Aurora brings to the program through our combination of experience in rapid prototyping and our expertise in composite structures.” The company’s background in human-powered aircraft directly translates to the lightly loaded “gossamer” solar-powered airplanes with low Reynolds numbers. Aurora, in fact, had recently converted one of its early human-powered aircraft into a solar-powered UAV.
Aurora will continue to manufacture the aft fuselage, forward nacelle, midnacelle, aft nacelle and V-tail assemblies of the Navy’s MQ-4C BAMS UAS aircraft at its composites manufacturing facility in Bridgeport, W.V., and ship the structures to Northrop Grumman’s manufacturing facility in Palmdale, Calif., for final assembly.

The MQ-4C BAMS UAS is the Navy version of the RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force to execute surveillance and reconnaissance tasks. Notably, it has been widely reported that the Air Force’s Global Hawk program has been cancelled due to military budget cuts.
The Navy’s BAMS aircraft, expected to make its first flight in 2012, is a long-endurance aircraft designed to provide ISR information to maritime forces.