The USAF has awarded Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences a US$48m (A$61m) contract to develop a certified version of its Orion medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system.
Previously, the system has been classified as experimental in nature, but this contract will fund a two-year effort to develop and integrate systems that would allow the Orion air vehicle to be granted a military type certificate.
“You or I, from a hundred yards, probably won’t be able to tell a Block 1 Orion from the current one,” John Langford, Aurora’s CEO and founder told Defense News. “They are going to look very similar. Probably the biggest change you’ll be able to see is that the tail will be smaller.
“Underneath the skin, all of the engineering is being redone. There will a lot more tests involved with this — structural tests, electronics tests, software development, a lot of work in the cyber security piece of this so that this can plug into the classified networks that it needs to.”
Originally hydrogen powered but now powered by two heavy fuel engines, the Orion demonstrated its extreme long endurance capabilities in December 2014 by staying aloft for more than 80 hours, but Aurora says that could be extended to as much as 100 hours with a 500kg payload.
Boeing is pitching the Orion as a possible complementary system to the P-8A Poseidon, where the P-8 would sow a sonar buoy field, and the Orion would then stay aloft for several days to monitor that field.