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NEWS | Nov. 24, 2020

Recent Tests Advance Drone Use for Laser Target Firing

By Carol Lawrence NSWC Port Hueneme Division

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) researchers recently took an idea to use drones to test and evaluate ships’ new laser weapons a step further by successfully launching and landing one from a moving ship.

From a few miles off the Port Hueneme coast, NSWC PHD Research and Technology Applications Manager Alan Jaeger and Cybersecurity Researcher, Ian Wilson, made a quadcopter take off, hover and fly alongside the side of the ship, and then land from a stationary and moving ship. The quadcopter was operating with San Diego, Calif.-based Planck Aerosystems Inc.’s autonomous navigation software that the pair had certified on earlier this year. The software is specially designed so Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (UAV) correctly maneuver and operate independently from ships and other moving platforms that heave and roll amid high winds and tight spaces so a pilot is not needed.

The drone will eventually carry a special piece of electronics that will measure key performance parameters of the Navy’s high-power and newer Laser Weapon System Demonstrator, currently installed on USS Portland (LPD 27). The ship will use the drone as an instrumented target and the electronics will collect the data.

Before that can happen, Jaeger and Wilson had to test the drone for how well it could fly, hover, keep pace with a moving and still ship, and land all on its own; all while weighing similar to the real electronics, so Sailors don’t have to manually operate it while also performing their regular ship duties.

“We’re here to find some bugs so we can determine if the drone and the software are ready for USS Portland,” Jaeger said. The pair conducted the test during the annual Coastal Trident (CT) Port and adjunct Maritime Security Program/Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) in September. Planck Aerosystems participated in the 2019 event.

The pair prepared for two days prior to the test because the 55-pound drone that measured about 50 inches from mid-propeller to mid-propeller, was larger and heavier than the drones they previously tested. They fitted quadcopter with an ID tag and a “payload” the same as what will eventually be used in the test with USS Portland on the nearby Point Mugu Sea Test Range in upcoming months.

Jaeger and Wilson are testing the concept on behalf of the Test Resource Management Center (TRMC), which came up with the idea and is the project’s funding source.

Earlier this year, the pair trained on and certified with Planck Aerosystems’ navigation software at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, an organization jointly operated by NOAA and the State of Hawaii, as part of a partnership with the organization. The sanctuary is also training its own staff to fly drones to hunt for humpback whales entangled in fishing nets, and take off of from and land on NOAA ships.

“The company has been adjusting software for larger drones (since that test),” Wilson said, “and we’ve been getting the necessary paperwork together and prepared, such as security waivers, cyber and general safety waivers and battery procedures, (for the eventual test with USS Portland).”

During the test flights, Wilson stood back—hands at his side and not on any controls or at a computer—and watched the drone perform its pre-programmed routes. Jaeger stood by with a joystick ready to take over flying the vehicle should it lose navigation.

“There is a lot of metal and other things on the ship that is transmitting, as well as the windy conditions, that can have an adverse impact on the signals (from the laptop) communicating with the drone,” Wilson said.

Through several tests, the drone rose straight up from the ship, then flew in a straight line over the water to hover about 75 meters off the port side. In the first test, the ship was stationary and the UAV hovered over the water for several minutes before smoothly returning to the same spot. In the next tests, the drone performed those maneuvers while the ship was moving at first 5 and then 10 knots, and the UAV flew steadily forward in a straight line while keeping pace with the ship. When it returned to the ship, it hovered over a target that resembled three QR codes laid on the ship’s floor.

“It kept very nice pace, and it did a really good job staying above the landing tag (QR codes),” Wilson said. “We had a gust of wind right before (one of the) landings, but we were able to stabilize and land, which is the hardest part.”

Despite windy conditions, the drone stayed steady and Jaeger did not have to take control.

“The UAV kept pace with the ship because it has a GPS and uses the tag (QR codes),” Jaeger said. “It sees the large code, and drops down a little, then the middle-sized code and then the smaller one as it lowers closer (to the ship). It also kept relative distance to the tag and matched the ship as the ship rose and fell (in the waves).”

During the tests, the UAV “met objectives,” but needs some refining,” Jaeger added. The drone material, for instance, needs to be waterproofed or else it will corrode in ships’ maritime environment.

The next step for Wilson and Jaeger will be to work with PHD’s directed energy team to develop a test plan and objectives for an actual test with the Portland on the Point Mugu test range. Wilson will also need to get certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate a drone in the national airspace.

The project aligns with PHD’s technology transition efforts, said Greg DeVogel, NSWC PHD’s chief technology officer.

“This project is another transition success story for Port Hueneme,” DeVogel said. It is also another example of how we can assist the line departments. This project happened because PHD’s Ship Defense & Expeditionary Warfare Department asked for assistance with a known testing gap. Our personnel pulled the technology together and supported via an alternate funding source. About 40% of our personnel are funded by outside customers like TRMC.”