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Drones team with fighter aircraft and help inspect airports

Additional Loyal Wingman jet-powered drones are being developed. Plus, quadcopters are helping calibrate and maintain aviation ground navigation systems.

I’ve previously discussed the Loyal Wingman project. Companies in the United States and Australia are developing unmanned full-scale jet-powered drones t0 fly alongside frontline fighters, and perhaps take on riskier missions.

The Loyal Wingman drones are powered with artificial intelligence developed for the U.S. Air Force Skyborg program.

Programs in other parts of the world are also developing technology for the same fly-along objectives. The United Kingdom has launched the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) program, and India is working on the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) Warrior project.

UK LANCA project

The UK usually takes its time progressing with new aviation concepts, but has now awarded a £30 million concept contract to Spirit Aerosystems in Belfast to develop and fly a demonstrator drone by the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, Kratos in the United States and Boeing Australia both have Loyal Wingman UAVs well into flight test programs as part of the Skyborg program. (The first test flight of the Loyal Wingman was successfully completed in February.) Nevertheless, the LANCA schedule should mesh with that of the UK’s next-generation fighter program, known as Tempest, which is just getting started.

Computer rendering of the United Kingdom’s Mosquito drone concept. (Credit: UK Defense Department)

Computer rendering of the United Kingdom’s Mosquito drone concept. (Credit: UK Defense Department)

Spirit Belfast is the Irish subsidiary of Spirit AeroSystems (Wichita, Kansas), previously owned by Bombardier (Montreal, Canada) and, before that, Shorts Brothers, Belfast. Spirit was previously involved in manufacturing aerostructures and will apply its unique composite resin transfer-infusion technology to build a high-speed capable, lightweight fuselage for the aircraft.

Spirit has formed Team Mosquito, joining Northrop Grumman UK and Intrepid Minds for flight controls and avionics. An engine supplier and developer has yet to be announced.

CATS Warrior project

On the other side of the world, Indian state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has apparently invested significantly since at least 2019 in a program to develop another Loyal Wingman concept, known as the HAL Combat Teaming System Warrior (HAL CATS Warrior). A mockup of the CATS Warrior was on display at Aero India 2021.

While still in the early phase of development, the program appears to be well into the major undertaking by HAL and its partner Newspace R&D. HAL has been the indigenous aircraft manufacturer for the Indian Air Force since the late 1940s, with facilities in Bangalore and with more than 25,000 employees.

The design goals for the Warrior drone appear to mirror those of the programs in the United States and the United Kingdom — to create an independent, autonomous, unmanned vehicle that can be teamed alongside frontline fighter aircraft as an expendable force multiplier.

Flight inspection drones

While we’re on the topic of aviation, let’s pull back to more current unmanned applications. News has emerged of a drone being used to inspect a landing-aid system in Russia. Aviation authorities in many countries spend lots of time and money on verifying and calibrating new and existing ground-based landing and navigation aids, to the point of equipping general aviation aircraft with extensive instrumentation and dedicating them to regularly checking key airport and en-route systems.

This is an expensive and lengthy task — all the way from buying, maintaining and operating aircraft to equipping each flying laboratory and maintaining complex onboard equipment, as well as training and employing skilled pilots and equipment operators.

The Cursir nav-aid inspection drone. (Photo: Cursir)

The Cursir nav-aid inspection drone. (Photo: Cursir)

Cursir in Russia has installed a specialized radio receiver on a commercial drone and used it to pre-configure a newly installed instrument landing system (ILS) at the Ulyanovsk-Vostochny airport, where difficult terrain makes the initial set-up of the ILS quite complex.

However, by using this calibration drone, set-up time was significantly reduced and adequate preparations were made for subsequent control flights by a fully equipped flight inspection aircraft. Even though these formal flights were still required, calibration of the ILS was less involved and fewer flights were necessary.

In the future, maintenance checks using only the calibration drone may be possible. Drones have also been in use for complete NAVAID inspection for some time, with companies including Canard in Spain and Colibrex in Germany.

Canard’s drones undertake flight inspection of runway lighting, ILS and other airport NAVAIDS. It uses a database of airports, runways and systems for flight planning, autonomous drone operations and analysis/reporting of collected data. Canard was founded in 2015, and its first flight inspection contract was in 2017 for seven European airports.

The Canard flight inspection drone. (Photo: Canard)

The Canard flight inspection drone. (Photo: Canard)

Colibrex built its own COL-X8 NavAidDrone in order to better integrate its in-house flight inspection receivers and antennas. The requirement for flight inspection is to accurately evaluate the signal-in-space being transmitted by the NAVAID, so Colibrex invested heavily in the development of its on-board RF reception and in-house results analysis systems. Early trials were first run in 2012, through many different measurement campaigns around the world; Colibrex has now established an extensive drone flight inspection capability.

The Colibrex NAVAID drone. (Photo: Colibrex)

The Colibrex NAVAID drone. (Photo: Colibrex)

To sum up, more Loyal Wingman jet-powered drones are in development, and perhaps we now have a little insight into how quadcopters are being used to calibrate and maintain aviation ground navigation systems. These are just a couple more innovative applications for unmanned aircraft.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

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