In the first of several drone delivery demonstrations in 2017, UPS in February tested truck-based drone deliveries using a hybrid-electric package truck and a multicopter small unmanned aircraft, the Horsefly, developed by truck-maker Workhorse Group. The package-delivery giant believes truck-based drones could increase driver efficiency and reduce distances driven in rural areas.
China’s MALE Contender
China’s MQ-9 Reaper-class medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) surveillance/strike unmanned aircraft, the Chengdu Wing-Loong II, made a 31-min. first flight on Feb. 27. Chinese and Saudi media subsequently reported that Saudi Arabia, which already operates the smaller Wing-Loong I, has placed an order for 300 of the aircraft.
Germany in March selected Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4 Triton unmanned aircraft to replace the canceled Global Hawk-based Euro Hawk (pictured) and, from 2025, carry a locally developed signals intelligence payload to fill the gap left by retirement of its Breguet Atlantic signals intelligence fleet in 2010.
LCS Take Off
Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter took flight for the first time from a U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the Independence-class USS Montgomery, in April. Based on the Bell 407 light commercial helicopter, the MQ-8C is scheduled to deploy operationally in 2020.
Airbus Shipborne UAS
In June, Airbus Helicopters began autonomous flight trials of a VSR700 optionally piloted vehicle—a modified version of Helicopteres Guimbal’s two-seat Cabri G2—initially with a safety pilot on board. The flights pave the way for a prototype of the VSR700 shipborne tactical unmanned aircraft to fly in 2018.
Piaggio resumed flight testing of its P.1HH Hammerhead medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft on July 5, following the loss of the first prototype in May 2016. Deliveries of the P.1HH—based on the Avanti business turboprop—to the United Arab Emirates Air Force are planned by the end of 2018.
Airbus Stealth UAS
Airbus Defense and Space flew a stealthy unmanned aircraft on July 18 at a test range in Overberg, South Africa. The Sagitta subscale demonstrator was developed with German universities and institutes under a national research project focusing on autonomous flight control and other advanced technologies.
EuroMALE Goes Turboprop
A definition study for a joint European medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft, launched in May 2015 by France, Germany, Italy and Spain, determined in July that the aircraft will have a twin-turboprop configuration. Development could begin in 2018, with systems to be fielded by 2025.
U.S. startup Zipline International in October begun using unmanned aircraft in Rwanda to deliver blood for transfusions to hard-to-reach sites. Operations were launched from Kigali, with a fleet of 15-20 air vehicles that are expected to make up to 150 flights a day to 21 rural health clinics in the western half of the country.
Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001, a 425-lb. long-endurance unmanned aircraft, landed back at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Oct. 23 after staying aloft for 121.4 hr. This is more than twice the record-setting 56 hr. achieved in December 2016 by the diesel-powered UAS.
Triton Prepares to Deploy
Northrop Grumman in November delivered the first combat-coded MQ-4C Triton maritime-surveillance high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft to the U.S Navy at Point Mugu, California, where it is being prepared for its initial operational deployment to Andersen AFB, Guam, in 2018.
Aurora Flight Sciences
An autonomy kit to convert any rotorcraft to unmanned operation—for resupply or other missions—was demonstrated by Aurora Flight Sciences in flights of a modified Bell UH-1H in December at Quantico, Virginia, under the Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System program.
Unmanned aircraft continued to make headlines in 2017. Here are just some of the highlights.
Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.