Long in gestation and in endurance, Aurora Flight Science’s Orion unmanned aircraft has made its first step towards demonstrating a 120-hr. flight at 20,000 ft. carrying a 1,000-lb. multi-sensor payload.

That would allow the Orion to provide continuous surveillance carrying a Predator-class payload with fewer takeoffs and landings that current medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs flying 24-hr. missions, significantly reducing the manpower burden and operating cost.

The Orion demonstrator made its first flight from “a western test range”, believed to be China Lake, Calif., on Aug. 24. Powered by a pair of fuel-efficient Austro Engine AE300 turbo-diesels, the aircraft flew for 3.5 hr., reaching an altitude of 8,000 ft. and airspeed of around 60 kt., says Tom Clancy, vice president of Aurora’s UAS business sector.

Within the Defense Department, ownership of the Orion program has changed hands several times. Aurora declines to identify its current customer, but Aviation Week understands it is the U.S. Air Force’s Big Safari program office, which manages the acquisition and modification of special-mission platforms.

When Aurora began work in 2006, it was with Army funding and Orion was planned to be a hydrogen-fuelled “high-altitude, long-loiter” (HALL) UAV. In 2008, the company submitted an unsolicited proposal to the Air Force Research Laboratory for a medium-altitude version of the Orion, powered by conventional engines. This led to a contract for the Medium-Altitude Global Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and Communications relay (Magic) joint concept technology demonstration (JCTD).

Using the composite wing and tail of the original HALL design, the Orion was rolled out at Aurora’s Golden Triangle, Miss., plant in November 2010, when it was expected to fly in August 2011. “The program’s progress has been funding-rate limited,” says Clancy. “The early phases of the Magic JCTD were completed, then we transitioned to a new program office,” he says. “But the basic objectives set at the beginning remain: a 120-hr. autonomous UAV carrying 1,000 lb. to 20,000 ft.”

The technical goals remain aligned with those of Magic: “Affordability, through reduced takeoffs and landings; autonomy, to reduce training cost; and open architecture, to minimize the cost of upgrading or augmenting the mission system,” says Clancy. “We are working towards plug-and-play, so we can change the mission suite with relative ease.”

There was no mission system on board for the Orion’s first flight, but there will be a payload on the aircraft for the 120-hr. demonstration flight, expected to be conducted by mid-2014, he says, adding “a number of different multi-intelligence payloads are potentially part of the program.” Aurora had proposed building three aircraft for the Magic demo, but now “can’t talk about whether there will be more than one,”

Clancy says.

He also cannot comment on whether there are any plans to deploy the system operationally. The Orion has a long-span, one-piece composite wing for low drag and light weight — two keys to extended endurance at medium altitude. Another is the fuel-efficient turbo-diesel engines, which burn jet fuel.

Two other long-endurance UAVs aimed at the 100-hr.-plus mark, AeroVironment’s Global Observer and Boeing’s Phantom Eye, are hydrogen-fueled and designed to fly at high altitude. Both flew only a handful of times and are currently without a customer.

Long endurance also requires high reliability, and the Orion has a system architecture with similar levels of autonomy and redundancy to Aurora’s Centaur optionally piloted aircraft, a modified Diamond DA 42 that can fly unmanned or in FAA-certified manned mode. “Some pieces are triplex, some duplex. For extreme endurance, there can be no single-point failures,” he says.

Flights will build up to the 120-hr. demo over the coming months. “It will be a significant reach to expand the envelope that far,” Clancy says. Aurora, meanwhile, has the capacity in place to make “multiple” aircraft per year at its Mississippi plant, he says, if the Orion can make it down the “somewhat tortuous path” from a technology demonstration to an operational program of record.