AVALON NEWS: Australian Air Force Takes Drone from ‘Paper’ to Flight in Two Months

By Stew Magnuson

Stew Magnuson photo

MELBOURNE, Australia — With a desire to speed up the development of defense technology, two Australian defense innovation groups last year took a paper design of an unmanned aerial vehicle and had it flying in about two months.

Wing Group Cmdr. Paul Hay, director of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Jericho Disruptive Innovation group, said Feb. 27 that the idea to develop a low-cost, expendable drone to augment current systems came up in August last year. By the end of September, the group — in partnership with the government’s Defense Science and Technology Group — had the “paper” design finished. By November, “the Wanderer” as it was dubbed, had its first test flight.

“These are the kind of timelines we want to get to,” he said at a conference organized by the Australian Association for Uncrewed Systems the day prior to Avalon — the Australian Air Show, where the drone was on static display.

The innovation group now has seven of the Wanderer low-altitude, long-endurance UAVs that are “combat ready prototypes,” a term meaning that they have at least 80 percent of the capabilities needed and can be used in operations.

The current acquisition models in Australia “just don’t work for us. We need to move much, much faster,” Hay said.

“We want to have a more agile process where we are developing things more often and working with them on a regular basis and not having to wait for major programs,” he added.

The design and manufacturing of the drones was all done in house, he said, acknowledging that the process would have taken longer if the groups had asked a vendor to do the work. To wit, the groups have issued a contract for the sensor payload, which will be delivered in March.

The Wanderer is no mere science project, but a drone that the nation’s air force, army or navy can use to augment their current high-end reconnaissance and surveillance UAVs such as the Triton, which U.S. contractor Northrop Grumman is delivering to the Royal Australian Navy. It should be available to them by the middle of 2023, he added.

Although “we do want them to come back,” the Wanderer is designed to be “expendable,” he said. The cost should be about 50,000 Australian dollars each — about $34,000 — which is in the attritable range, he said.

The Wanderer has a four-meter wingspan, a range of about 1,300 kilometers, can fly up to 1,525 meters and can carry a two-kilogram payload. It has commercially available avionics, GPS and mission planner, so there are no export restrictions, he added.

One of the key features of the Wanderer and all future Australian drones, is that they be runway independent, Hay said.

“Runways are the air force’s kryptonite,” he said. They’re very easy for the enemy to target and aren’t always nearby, so the new drone was designed to be launched from the top of a moving vehicle. As long as the operators have a small stretch of road, they can put it aloft, he said.

Topics: International

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