AFRL's Ninja, as it’s known, is a two-segment counter-UAS system. One of its components, held here by senior engineer Daniel Hague, flies out with a net and literally catches an enemy RPA midflight. Staff photo by Gideon Grudo.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is working on catching enemy remotely piloted aircraft with a net, literally.
The Ninja, as it’s known, is a two-segment counter-UAS system AFRL is developing. It can either disrupt enemy UAS communications and veer the UAS away from friendly territory or send out a friendly unmanned aircraft dragging an actual net to capture the enemy UAS, its flaps getting stuck in the holes of the net.
“They work best as a system, but each can be used on its own,” Daniel Hague, senior engineer for AFRL’s Information Directorate, told Air Force Magazine at DOD’s Lab Day at the Pentagon on Thursday. The technology is cheap, too. The hard kill (or net slinging option) costs about $1,000 a unit and the soft kill (communication-disrupting option) costs about $10,000. While that’s just for the hardware and doesn’t include development or deployment costs, the amount is far less than sending out a friendly UAS to attack the enemy UAS.
When will the Ninja be operational or deployed? “We’re working on it,” Hague said.
Speaking of RPAs
AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate found a way to add a datalink to existing RPAs that is 20 percent the weight of and 33 percent the cost of conventional ways of doing so.
The retrofit kit, designed specifically for MQ-9 Reapers, is paper thin, about the size of two credit cards, and tapes right onto a servo cover (which protects wing maneuverability for the Reaper). It’s called a conformal antenna and links up to Link-16, which allows military aircraft to exchange tactical data links in near-real time, explained Dan Berrigan, who works for the directorate.
It’s not currently fully developed, Berrigan told Air Force Magazine, but AFRL is working with Air Force Special Operations Command and Air Combat Command and hopes to see that happen in the next 12 to 18 months. At that point, the project would leave the hands of AFRL and enter those of military engineers who’d tinker with the software end of linking and communication logistics.
What’s more significant than the negligible weight of the antenna and its non-intrusive design is its ability to be modified if the need changes in the future. It can grow a bit, be replaced, and get reconfigured with relative ease, said Berrigan.
AFRL also displayed the Hypersonic International Flight Experimentation program (or HIFiRE), which focuses on the science of hypersonics. The lab is still learning how hypersonics behave and what they’ll demand to go operational, but its understanding of these tenets is “ever improving” and the program is “very successful, having completed most of its objectives,” said Alex Maag, who works for AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate.
Maag told Air Force Magazine the hope is to get the system to a technology readiness level of five within the next five years, meaning the item’s testing will then mimic realistic environments (to learn more about TRLs, check out our TRL guide).
The HIFiRE program goes back to 2006, when AFRL teamed up with Australia to conduct basic and applied research on hypersonics and conduct up to 10 flight experiments over the course of six years.
AFRL also is focusing some efforts on nanoenergetics—or materials that release energy quickly—to increase the efficiency of ordnance. And it’s studying reactive materials, considering transforming the non-explosive segments of the weapon explosive.
This might mean taking a steel missile frame and using an oxide of some sort instead, said John Corley, a core technical competency lead with AFRL’s Munitions Directorate. “Sometimes it takes a while to get it off the shelf,” he said when asked when USAF might field some of the munitions capabilities AFRL is working on.
Additive manufacturing is allowing missile construction in new ways, too. For example, Corley explained, AFRL has designed small-scale models of missiles with thinner walls but with insides that are webbed with reinforcing skeletons to allow for a more efficient distribution of energy once the weapons reaches its target.
“You could never make something that complex” with conventional manufacturing, Corley told Air Force Magazine.
Cheap, Attributable Aircraft
AFRL is working on low cost attributable aircraft technology, though whether these aircraft will sense or attack is still in the air.
The project is “on schedule” and Bill Baron, LCAAT’s program manager, told Air Force Magazine to expect its development phase to be complete by Spring 2018, when it will begin test flights. Then it will be in the hands of the acquisitions community, he added, shrugging at exactly how and when such assets may be used in warfare.
The LCAAT has a range of 3,000 nautical miles and can carry a 1,000 pound payload.
It’s a “new, old idea,” he said, pointing back to decades of military imagination of unmanned aircraft able to go out, conduct a mission, and come back unharmed. Unlike DARPA’s Gremlins project, which looks to deploy a swarm of drones from the back of a C-130 and then collect them again after they complete their mission, LCAAT isn’t going to be small or deployed by another aircraft. It’ll stand alone and carry a payload.
The challenge at this juncture, Baron said, is identifying the “effectiveness of the team.” It’s not yet clear whether LCAATs will operate alone or in tandem with each other, he noted.