The US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) is developing a tube-launched unmanned aircraft system (UAS) that can be deployed from an AC-130 gunship, or similar aircraft, and provide video that will rival that provided by its own sensors.
In situations where weather affects the effectiveness of electro-optical infrared (EOIR) sensors or when a gunship must operate at distances that makes their sensors ineffective, AFRL is hoping its Tactical Off-Board Sensing (TOBS) project will fill the gap.
"We put an EO/IR sensor on a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and we launch it from the mother ship to get under the weather, to see through the weather, and to also be able to see from a stand-off distance," Jason Bowman, programme manager for TOBS, told Jane's .
During the TOBS development phase, AFRL is using Area-I's ALTIUS (Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated Unmanned System) UAV to demonstrate the tube launching and survivability of the platform.
TOBS must provide equivalent - or better - levels of sensor performance as the mother ship, he noted.
Both the AC-130J Ghostrider and the AC-130W Stinger II have common onboard launch tubes. Those tubes measure 4 ft (1.21 m) in length and 6 inches (15.24 cm) in diameter. Bowman was handed a requirement from the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to fit a UAV into that tube.
"There was no small UAV out there that could fit in that tube," he said.
Part of Bowman's effort was to develop the UAV to fit SOCOM's requirement.
"It just so happened the air force had an SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] contract with Area-I and at the time they were looking at fuel cell propulsion technology," Bowman said. "When we started hearing about the company's capabilities, what they had demonstrated already, [we thought] this could be the UAV that could meet AFSOC's (Air Force Special Operations Command) requirements."
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