The US Navy successfully launched an all-electric, fuel cell-powered, unmanned aerial system (UAS) from a submerged submarine. From concept to fleet demonstration, this idea took less than six years to produce results at significant cost savings when compared to traditional programs often taking decades to produce results.
This underwater launch of a remotely deployed UAS offers a pathway to providing mission critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the US Navy’s submarine force.
Developed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the XFC UAS – eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System – was fired from the submarine’s torpedo tube using a ‘Sea Robin’ launch vehicle system. The Sea Robin launch system was designed to fit within an empty Tomahawk launch canister (TLC) used for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles already familiar to submarine sailors.
Once deployed from the TLC, the Sea Robin launch vehicle with integrated XFC rose to the ocean surface where it appeared as a spar buoy. Upon command of Providence Commanding Officer, the XFC then vertically launched from Sea Robin and flew a successful several hour mission demonstrating live video capabilities streamed back to Providence, surface support vessels and Norfolk before landing at the Naval Sea Systems Command Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre (AUTEC), Andros, Bahamas.
The XFC is a fully autonomous, all electric fuel cell powered folding wing UAS with an endurance of greater than six hours. The non-hybridised power plant supports the propulsion system and payload for a flight endurance that enables relatively low cost, low altitude, ISR missions. The XFC UAS uses an electrically assisted take off system, which lifts the plane vertically out of its container and therefore, enables a very small footprint launch such as from a pickup truck or small surface vessel.