The US military may soon welcome some new additions to its fleet of unmanned aircraft, with the Navy revealing plans to purchase a set of small drones that can be launched into the air from submarines and other underwater vehicles.
The Blackwing drones are launched from a three-inch canister aboard submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles, as part of already installed systems used for acoustic countermeasures. They could be daisy-chained to boost communications and potentially even weaponized as a self-defense option.
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The aircraft was developed by AeroVironment and builds on one of the company's earlier drone designs, the Switchblade unmanned aerial system which was first deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011.
Looking to offer the Navy a low-cost surveillance tool for contested environments, the company developed the Blackwing under a Navy technology program called "Advanced Weapons Enhanced by submarine UAS against mobile targets."
This program was completed in 2015 with a strong recommendation that the drones be incorporated into the Navy's submarine fleet, and it has now requested funds in the upcoming fiscal budget to do exactly that. The aircraft comes with electro-optical and infrared sensors, GPS modules, digital and encrypted communications capabilities and can fly for more than one hour at a time.
"So there's 150 small unmanned aerial systems coming in on submarines, so we're now buying them," Rear Admiral Richard told US Naval Institute News. "It's not something that you would [just] see on a PowerPoint presentation. These are fully integrated they'll go in talk back to the ship, talk to the combat control system and additionally we'll have 12 of a 21-inch torpedo tube launched vehicles with much longer launched duration."