The Aurora Flight Sciences Orion is a research projet that saw light in 2013 which failed to deliver its original promises of speed and high altitude.
In 2006, a research project concerning a HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) drone equipped with a hydrogen engine was launched, financed by the American armed forces. It should replace the Blue Devil 2 and LEMV (Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle) surveillance aircraft, whose programs have been cancelled, and have a greater endurance than the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Aurora Flight Sciences was selected to develop this project by the USAF Research Laboratory (AFRL) in 2007, but after a few months of study, Aurora proposed a propulsion system using conventional engines. The company then won a contract for the MAGIC (Medium-Altitude Global Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Communications relay) and for a technology demonstrator called JCTD (joint concept technology demonstration). At that time, the Orion was redesigned to become a twin-engine UAV capable of flying at medium altitude (approx. 6,000 meters) for 120 hours with a payload of 450 kg. Airframe design, assembly and electronics integration are performed at Aurora Flight Sciences’ facilities in Columbus, Mississippi and Manassas, Virginia. Boundary load testing on the Orion was conducted in March 2009.
The Orion’s composite fuselage is square in cross-section with a rounded front end to accommodate the satellite link antenna, ground-based target indication radar (GMTI), and other equipment. In high position, the wings are tapered and have a very large aspect ratio. Their spars and skin are made of composite materials, while the ribs are made of aluminium alloys and composite materials. The wings support two nacelles containing the turbo diesel engines driving the three-bladed propellers. The horizontal tail, also very tapered, is located just in front of the vertical stabilizer. This last one is prolonged downwards by a small ventral keel. The landing gear is tricycle, with a retractable front gear. Under the nose is a turret equipped with a ball containing electro-optical multispectral cameras. A belly hold allows the carrying of 450 kg of various loads made up of research, electromagnetic listening or communication devices, or weapons. Carrying points under the wings allow the carrying of additional fuel tanks or air-to-ground missiles of type AGM-114 Hellfire.
Its maximum speed of only 220km/h allows for a balance between fuel efficiency, energy consumption and weather tolerance. Although it is designed to fly for five days with a standard payload, it can fly for a week with a lighter payload. These different points on which the designers have worked especially should allow it to have a relatively low operational cost. Indeed, its endurance allows to reduce the number of take-off and landing cycles, while its 6’400km range allows it to operate from bases further away from the patrol area, which does not require to transport the aircraft and its ground control system to a closer operational base.
In October 2011, Aurora Flight Sciences formed a strategic alliance with AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems to integrate its UGCS (Universal Ground Control Station). This flight control platform enables a common digital link of tactical data and provides greater bandwidth and data security. The UGCS provides simultaneous command and control of multiple UAVs operated by joint forces.
With limited funding for the program, development of the prototype was delayed and the first flight, which was scheduled for 2011, was finally conducted on August 24, 2013. From December 5 to 8, 2014, the Orion made an 80-hour flight at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, flying at an altitude of between 1,400 and 3,000m with a 450kg ballast to simulate the payload, breaking the endurance record set at 30.4 hours by the Global Hawk in 2001. When it landed, it still had 770kg of fuel left, which would have allowed it to fly an additional 37 hours, but the duration of the test was unfortunately limited by the availability of the ground support assigned to it.
Following this flight, Aurora hopes to convince the USAF to procure the Orion to perform continuous surveillance missions in certain sensitive areas, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The company also proposes several other roles for the Orion, including communications relay and maritime surveillance, for which it competes with the MQ-4C Triton UAV.
After five years of development and the completion of its flight demonstration program in September 2015, the USAF announced that it did not wish to purchase it, and the prototype was stored in a company hangar. Reasons for this refusal include budgetary reasons, but also a 40-meter wingspan that is too large for many USAF hangars. In addition, its speed and weapons capability are less than those of the MQ-9 Reaper.
In September 2016, Aurora is raising enough money to set up a system of three Orions available for lease by civilian government services or by contractors serving military powers. The aircraft, which are equipped for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions, are designated Block I and feature some exterior modifications, among them a slightly smaller wing area. A series of demonstrations is also planned between now and 2020 with the U.S. Coast Guard to experiment with surveillance missions across maritime borders.
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