America's Aircraft Carriers Could Soon Have a New Weapon

America's Aircraft Carriers Could Soon Have a New Weapon

Think drones. 

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Incorporated (GA-ASI) has successfully demonstrated that its Predator C Avenger prototype can be handled on a carrier flight deck using procedures already familiar to U.S. Navy crews.

The prototype unmanned aircraft—which the company is using as a surrogate testbed for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stringray unmanned aerial refueling tanker program—showed that it can successfully taxi and transition to the launch and recovery phases in a carrier environment during tests. While the tests took place on land, the hand gestures and signals used were essentially identical to what Navy crews use today. The company is using its privately developed Predator C Avenger as a concept demonstrator for what will become its proposal for the MQ-25 program.

“MQ-25 will need to integrate seamlessly with the Carrier Air Wing regardless of whether the aircraft is conducting flight or deck operations,” David R. Alexander, president of aircraft systems at GA-ASI, said. “This demonstration proves that the GA-ASI solution will integrate into existing ship operations, and that translates into less time spent steaming into the wind for launches and recoveries.”

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To meet the Navy’s carrier flight deck operations requirements for the MQ-25 program, the GA-ASI proposal “will use specially designed director wands that are the same size, shape, and weight as those used today” the company said. Essentially, for the Navy crews onboard an aircraft carrier, flight deck operations with a General Atomics-designed MQ-25 would be very similar to current operations with manned aircraft such an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

“Directors fully control aircraft taxi operations on deck, including lowering/raising the launch bar, spreading/folding the wings, and raising the arresting hook,” the company said in a statement. “GA-ASI employs unique gesture recognition algorithms in the wands that recognize standard Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures (NATOPS) flight deck director hand gestures and then translates and sends those commands to the MQ-25 air vehicle. MQ-25 receives the commands and converts them into the appropriate aircraft actions.”

As with manned aircraft, the flight deck crews will be able to receive feedback from the MQ-25. However, unlike manned aircraft, the MQ-25 will use flashing lights to communicate with deck crews.

“MQ-25 will be able to ‘talk back’ to the controller and other flight deck personnel using a small series of LEDs that change colors and/or flash to show that they have received a command and indicate the aircraft’s condition or operating state,” Alexander said. “A safety observer on deck can stop the aircraft instantly any time an unsafe situation is identified. To give you an idea of how the system works, think Wii for aircraft control.”

Ensuring that a future MQ-25 can operate safely onboard a carrier and integrate seamlessly with the rest of the carrier air wing is a critical part of the Stringray program.

General Atomics is one of three companies vying to build the MQ-25. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are proposing competing designs, each with their own design tradeoff that the companies believe will secure them the Navy contract. Northrop Grumman dropped out of the contest after the program became an effort to build a tanker instead of a combat aircraft. The Navy is expected to picker a winning tanker design later this year.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest . You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar .

Image: Wikimedia Commons