The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded an $8.9 million contract to three vendors last week to build a prototype for low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles that can work with Army ground combat vehicles to scout ahead of American forces.
The winning contractors, including Aurora Flight Sciences Inc. of Manassas, are to develop prototypes for the Organic Air Vehicle-II, a cross between a helicopter and an aircraft. When fully developed, the craft will run complex reconnaissance and surveillance missions, set the course for robotic and manned vehicles on the ground and target weapons.
The prototypes the contractors are developing will weigh less than 112 pounds and include a platform for advanced sensors and non-line-of-sight networking communications.
The vehicles, roughly the size of a 55-gallon drum, will have a sensor package, including day- and night-cameras and laser designators. They will also be outfitted with the software-programmable Joint Tactical Radio System, which provides multichannel voice, data, imagery and video communications.
Aurora is the only small business competing with two larger companies, BAE Systems Aircraft Controls Inc. of Los Angeles and Honeywell International Inc.'s defense and space electronic systems unit in Albuquerque.
The contractors will have six months to finish their prototypes and preliminary designs. By next June, DARPA will choose the best two to continue into a second phase, which is expected to last nine months. The Defense Department will eventually select one contractor to build, test and demonstrate the vehicle over 33 months.
Brad Tousley, a program manager at DARPA's Tactical Technology Office in Arlington, said the hybrid unmanned aerial vehicles fill a vital need in the military: They will launch from an Army combat vehicle and travel with an infantry company for important surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
The Defense Department research agency wants to see that the design works, that the aircraft can be quiet for secretive missions and that the vehicles have technology to avoid collisions with trees, power lines and buildings. The craft also must be able to integrate with the Army's next generation of ground vehicles, including tanks, Humvees and Bradleys.
The Defense Department has no low-flying, unmanned air vehicle that can help small ground units with surveillance, reconnaissance and target missions.
"The idea would be to have something that could move with the troops, that could be operated by small combat units and hover and maybe even land on the top of a building and watch what was going on in the streets," said John Langford, president and chief executive of Aurora.
Langford said DARPA wanted something that could be unobtrusive yet accurate. The agency also wanted an aerial vehicle that could travel long distances but take off and land vertically, a hybrid between a fixed-wing airplane and a helicopter.
Aurora is making upgrades to its GoldenEye-100 prototype unmanned vehicle under the contract.
Dawn S. Onley is a senior writer with Government Computer News. For more details on this and other technology contracts, go to www.gcn.com