Ever wonder what happened to Aurora Flight Sciences’ Orion unmanned aircraft, rolled out back in November 2010 then never heard of again? Well it has made its first flight at “a western test range” for an unnamed customer.
The Orion made its 3.5hr first flight on August 24, reaching an altitude of 8,000ft and airspeed of around 60kt. The aircraft is designed to fly for 120hr at 20,000ft, carrying a 1,000lb payload – enabling it to provide continuous surveillance with a Predator-class payload with five times fewer take-off and landings than today’s 24hr-mission medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAVs. Orion started in 2006 as a hydrogen-fueled “high-altitude, long-loiter” (HALL) demonstrator for the US Army, powered by a single Ford truck engine modified to burn hydrogen. The same powerplant is used on Boeing’s twin-engined hydrogen-fueled Phantom Eye, for which Aurora built the composite wing.
Photos: Aurora Flight Sciences
Orion then morphed into a conventionally powered MALE UAV for the Air Force Research Laboratory, to demonstrate the affordability, autonomy, reliability and capability of an aircraft able to stay aloft for five days, reducing the manpower burden and operating cost compared with Predator-class vehicles. Aurora rolled out the Orion in November 2010, planning to fly it in August 2011, but the AFRL-funded MAGIC joint concept technology demonstration ended without the aircraft having flown. The program then transferred to an unidentified organization (the Big Safari program office), and now Orion has flown. The 120hr demonstration flight is expected to take place by mid-2014, but beyond that Aurora and the Air Force are tight-lipped. With today's concerns about operating UAVs in contested airspace it is hard to see where the slow-flying Orion would fit in – but persistent surveillance will always have its uses.