The U.S. Navy is moving towards acquiring a small cargo drone to carry lightweight cargoes between vessels, which would eliminate the need for helicopter flights for a substantial fraction of its spare-parts logistics.
Since last year, the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division's research arm has been testing out a long-distance VTOL drone. The commercially-derived Skyways drone, developed by a small startup in Texas, can carry up to about 24 pounds of cargo for a distance of 65 miles. This is enough to airlift about 80 percent of the Navy's critical parts cargoes, according to Tony Schmidt, the center's director of rapid prototyping, who discussed the device at the Sea-Air-Space conference last week.
On a very rapid timetable, Schmidt's team trialed a collection of 65 contender UAVs in late August 2019; selected the Skyways drone; took delivery of the prototype in October 2020; and got it onto the deck of the new carrier USS Gerald R. Ford for testing in February 2021. Aboard Ford, the drone shuttled back and forth from the vessel to shore in Norfolk, where the carrier was waiting at anchor. (The small aircraft carried representative cargoes, not repair parts.)
The drone carried out additional trials between USS Bainbridge and USNS Joshua Humphreys in July, and Schmidt has high hopes that it will get "picked up as a program of record." If it does, it may not move forward with the Skyways drone design, but something with a delta-wing configuration instead - the futuristic wing shape used by the much smaller Netherlands-built DeltaQuad Pro VTOL drone.
The Navy is placing a high priority on autonomous, unmanned systems to boost its position in every domain. Its MQ-25 Stingray program is developing an autonomous, unmanned drone tanker aircraft for the carrier fleet now, and the first four-plane test squadron will begin operations in October.