San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19) launched a RQ-21A Small Tactical Unmanned Air System recently, for its first flight at sea.
The STUAS completed four fly-bys around the ship before recovering with the STUAS Recovery System, a cable apparatus the aircraft latches to for recovery.
The STUAS completed three months of land-based trial flights aboard Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, Calif., before launching from a San Antonio-class amphibious landing dock ship.
“This is a significant event because the program is getting ready to achieve a major acquisition milestone,” said Gregory Oliver, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) lead test engineer. “This testing we are doing supports the ability to continue on with the development phase before a production phase.”
The Mesa Verde hosted members of the STUAS team from the company, Insitu, that built the aircraft and from NAVAIR during the sea trials.
“They helped us out, we helped them out, and we made a great team,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class (SW) Travis Starr.
The successful launch required the ship’s crew and the STUAS team to coordinate with each other for launch and recovery.
“Some challenges were getting the air space we needed and making sure we could get proper wind conditions for launch and recovery,” said Oliver.
Other circumstances needed to be considered while flying at sea as opposed to on land.
“We learned a lot about its handling qualities and how it flies around the ship,” said Oliver.
The initial installation took months to plan and install.
“There was a lot of preparing that had to be done for ship integration,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Matthew, STUAS detachment officer in charge, project officer, and U.S. naval test pilot. “The biggest parts were to install and integrate the Ground Control Station into the ship infrastructure, which included installing various antennas onto the ship’s deck and masts.”
Next, the team had to find a secure and safe place for the launch and recovery system as well as train the crew how to move and emplace it, said Matthew.
“The launch and recovery equipment were never on a ship before, so we didn’t know if they were going to be able to make the angles up, the ramps and the turns,” said Starr.
The flight was a success and a learning experience for both the ship’s crew and NAVAIR.
“We learned what the aircraft and its support equipment can and cannot do, flying qualities during launch and recovery, system performance while aloft and how better to work with the ships crew,” said Matthew.
NAVAIR has a goal for STUAS flight first from large LPD ships, and then possibly smaller ships in the fleet.
“I see STUAS being operated by the capable hands of U.S. Navy Sailors and Marines,” said Matthew. “This system, when ready, will be a tremendous asset to the fleet and myself, and my test team are proud to be a part of that,” said Matthew.
Mesa Verde reached a historic milestone for the future of unmanned aircraft launching from ships in the Navy.
“[We are] very pleased to be working with Mesa Verde and want to thank the captain and crew for supporting us while we are out here,” said Oliver.
Mesa Verde is underway conducting exercises at sea.