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U.S. Navy Launches UAV from a Submarine

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Naval Research Laboratory XFC Sea Robin demonstration Atlantic Undersea Test & Evaluation Center in August 2013. US Navy Photo

Naval Research Laboratory XFC Sea Robin demonstration Atlantic Undersea Test & Evaluation Center in August 2013. US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy has demonstrated the launch of a small unmanned aircraft from submarine for the first time, the service announced in a statement on Dec. 5. The successful test could herald the arrival of potentially revolutionary new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for the Navy’ submarine force and special warfare communities.

The demonstration “represents an unprecedented paradigm shift in UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] propulsion and launch systems,” Warren Schultz, program developer and manager for the program at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). “This six-year effort represents the best in collaboration of a Navy laboratory and industry to produce a technology that meets the needs of the special operations community.”

During the demonstration, the NRL developed eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System (XFC UAS) was fired out of the USS Providence (SSN-719)’s torpedo tube using a ‘Sea Robin’ launch system, which is designed to fit inside an existing Tomahawk launch canister.

After it was fired out of the Providence’s torpedo tube, the Sea Robin rose to the surface and launched the XFC UAS—but only after it received permission from the Los Angeles-class boat.

The NRL describes the XFC as a “fully autonomous, all electric fuel cell powered folding wing” unmanned air system. It has an endurance of greater than six hours, according to the NRL. The aircraft uses an electrically assisted take-off mechanism, which boosts the small UAV vertically out of its container.

Once in the air, the XFC “flew a successful several hour mission demonstrating live video capabilities streamed back to Providence, surface support vessels and Norfolk” read the NRL statement. The XFC eventually landed at the Naval Sea Systems Command Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) in the Bahamas after the completion of the sortie.

According to the NRL, the lab received funding from the Office of Naval Research’s SwampWorks officer and the Department of Defense Rapid Reaction Technology Office (DoD/RRTO).

The Navy and industry have both explored launching unmanned aerial vehicles from submarines.

In late 2009, Boeing and Northrop Grumman proposed equipping the Multiple All Up Round Canisters (MAC) in the Block III Virginia-class (SSN-774) attack submarines and the Ohio-class guided missile submarines (SSGN) with the compressed carriage version of the ScanEagle UAV.

  • pekelney

    This is a great start and sounds like it will lead to really useful extensions of sensors, and maybe even some lightweight strike capability.

    However, the USN designed, built and tested an ability to launch a small heat seeking Anti-Aircraft/Anti-Surface Ship missile submerged but never fielded it. From my naive perspective it seems crazy that a US attack submarine is incapable of threatening an ASW helicoper or fast moving small craft. The reason provided was a fear of friendly fire. From my historian’s perspective, there have been friendly fire incidents from ground, and surface ships using these weapons, but we did not give them up. Our submarines have a better view of the battlespace than anytime in history (even if not perfect.) Why should our submariners be subject to un-constrained threat?