Tube-launched UAVs could be in air in 2010

(MILITARY TIMES)   An unmanned aerial vehicle small enough to launch from a plane or another UAV could be ready for the Air Force as soon as 2011, according to an expert with one of the five companies competing to produce the missile look-alike.

The Tube Launched Expendable UAV is no more than 3 feet long, weighs only 15 pounds, can fly for an hour and gives either a pilot or a ground unit the option to see over that next ridge without attracting much attention, according to a fact sheet provided by L3 Geneva Aerospace. The Air Force refused to talk about the aircraft.

L3 Geneva Aerospace had information about the mini-UAV on display at a July unmanned technology conference in Washington. The Air Force would not disclose the other four companies hoping to land the contract. Both the Navy and the Army are developing versions of the tube-launched UAV.

An Air Force timeline shows the UAV flying in the next five years. L3 Geneva Aerospace could have the aircraft ready to go in 18 months, said Andre Cahill, an official with the flight technology company.

The UAV would be fired off the wing or out the back hatch, he said. After the launch from a manned aircraft, a payload operator inside the plane would fly the UAV.

L3’s model has a maximum air speed of 85 knots and a cruising speed of 55 to 65 knots. The UAV is powered by a propeller that will flip out with the wings after launch.

Like larger UAVs, a tube-launched UAV would have a sensor pod in its nose to broadcast video. Advanced models would paint targets for missile strikes. Other models could be equipped with warheads to allow the operator to fly the UAV-turned-missile directly into a target.

Airmen who would fly the tube-launched UAV would need minimal training, Cahill said.

The UAV would fly until it crashes into the ground, the reason why military leaders want to keep its price down, Cahill said. Prices vary from $2,000 to up to $50,000 each, he said.

Cahill said he expected an aircraft to carry more than one UAV to give aircrews and ground commanders the additional flexibility to follow multiple targets. A tracker card installed inside the UAV will also make it easier for operators to track moving vehicles, Cahill said.

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