(General Atomics photo)
The race to get the contract for the US Navy's first carrier-based drone is heating up.
All three competitors — Boeing, General Atomics, and Lockheed Martin — have released images of what their drones look like, and the announcement of the winner is expected sometime between August and October 2018.
The program, officially known as the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System, or CBARS, is an attempt by the Navy to increase the operational range of carrier-based aircraft with a drone that can perform aerial refueling duties.
The program was originally called the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, and was intended to field a carrier-based drone that could conduct air strikes and perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, known as ISR.
But after delays over the main focus of the MQ-25's role (strike or ISR), the Pentagon decided to repurpose the program to aerial refueling, in order to help deal with its shortage of pilots and the rise of longer range anti-ship defenses.
Northrup Grumman, once considered the most likely to be awarded the contract because of the success of its X-47B demonstrator, announced that it was pulling out from the competition in October 2017, leaving Boeing, General Atomics, and Lockheed Martin as the only competitors.
Here's what you need to know about each submission:
Concept image of Lockheed Martin's MQ-25 Stingray conducting an aerial refueling mission for an F-35.(Lockheed Martin photo)
Lockheed Martin's design is loosely based on its RQ-170 Sentinel and the overall design does not appear much different from Lockheed Martin's UCLASS offer, the Sea Ghost. That drone was supposed to feature stealth technology to help it conduct strike and ISR missions.
But when the Pentagon shifted the program to aerial refueling, the stealth requirements were dropped. Despite this, Lockheed Martin has decided to keep its flying wing design.
A flying wing design is aerodynamically efficient because it requires less thrust and fuel to fly, and its spot factor is small when its wingtips are folded up.
A flying wing design for a tanker also has the added benefit of having more space than conventional designs, which allows it to carry more fuel. The Navy wants its new drone to be able to hold over 14,000 lbs of fuel.
From a mechanical standpoint, flying wing aircraft are considered slightly easier to maintain as well because they tend to have a lower number of parts.
The drone will also be equipped with sensors and cameras that enable it to carry out limited ISR missions.
Boeing's prototype MQ-25 Stingray(Boeing photo)
Boeing's design is based on its Phantom Ray stealth UAV demonstrator. Boeing has the most experience in aerial refueling, as well as naval aviation as a whole — the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the EA-18G Growler dominate the current naval air fleet.
Like Lockheed Martin's design, the drone has a massive fuel tank, meaning it will have no difficulty meeting the Navy's 14,000lbs of fuel and 500 nautical mile range requirements.
Boeing's design is the only one that has a working prototype, though it has not yet flown. The drone has been tested in St. Louis on Lambert Field.
The drone was operating on a painted outline of an aircraft carrier flight deck to test if it could function well in the limited space.
Deborah VanNierop, a spokeswoman for Boeing, said that they had "successfully controlled the aircraft through all of the most challenging flight deck scenarios, including day and night operations," in tests that were "designed to show how the aircraft can be taxied and operated within the tight confines of the carrier flight deck."
Boeing's candidate was also adapted from the original UCLASS program.
MQ-25 Stingray refueling an F-35(General Atomics photo)
General Atomics' design is based on their Sea Avenger, a carrier-based version of their Avenger UAV, a strike aircraft that was intended to succeed its MQ-9 Reaper.
The Sea Avenger was re-adapted for refueling operations after the Pentagon cancelled the UCLASS program.
General Atomics and Boeing are working on the proposal together, and this drone would be among the largest projects General Atomics has pursued.
The drone will be equipped with electromagnetic technology that will enable it to fit in seamlessly with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System on board Ford-class carriers.
It will also be powered by the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW815 turbofan engines, one of the most efficient and modern engines currently used.
The design is still heavily based on the Avenger, which was designed for strike and ISR missions.
The company has already announced that it will not build a flyable prototype, choosing instead to use its Avenger prototypes for things like ground tests. General Atomics provides the US military with more drones than any other company.
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