Naval Air: Simple Is Cheaper, Sooner And Just Works


November 1, 2017: After more than a decade of effort and several months of tests at sea in submarines the U.S. Navy has finally found a submarine launched UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) it wants to use and ordered over a hundred more for delivery in 2018 and delivery to nuclear subs as part of their standard equipment. The Blackwing UAV is derived from existing small UAVs and proved quickly adaptable to submarine use.

Blackwing is stored and launched from a 75mm diameter canister that fits the launcher used for acoustic countermeasures devices (noisemakers that cause torpedoes to miss the sub). Blackwing is half a meter (20 inches) long, weighs 1.8 kg (4 pounds) and has endurance of about 60 minutes.

Blackwing was based on the similar Switchblade UAV developed by the same firm that created the universally acclaimed (since it reached the troops in 2005) Raven UAV. From Raven came Switchblade. In 2009 the first version of Switchblade was sent to Afghanistan for field testing by Special Forces and was found to be extremely useful.

Switchblade is a one kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same gear the larger (two kg/4.4 pound) Raven UAV employs. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds). The navy asked for a submarine version in 2012 and the first version of Blackwing was ready for testing at sea by 2015. Over a hundred Blackwings were used during development and the user reaction was similar to that Switchblade received.

The usefulness of Blackwing was obvious. It can be used for finding and identifying distant targets. Blackwing is also equipped to be a communications relay. The UAV communicates with the sub via the OE-538 communications mast (a periscope type device the pokes out of the water while the sub is still submerged.

Blackwing is not the first UAV designed for submarine launcher. The navy has been working on this sort of thing for over a decade. Back in 2006 the navy seriously considered a modified version of the recently introduced ScanEagle UAV for submarine use. This would be done by storing a ScanEagle in a canister that would be launched from one of the 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes. ScanEagle weighs 19 kg (40 pounds), has a 3.2 meter (ten foot) wingspan, and uses day and night video cameras. On ships it uses a catapult for launch and is landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16 meter (fifty foot) pole. The ScanEagle can stay in the air for up to 24 hours per flight and fly as high as 6,100 meters (19,500 feet). ScanEagles’ cruising speed is 110 kilometers an hour and can operate over a hundred kilometers from the ground controller. Scan Eagle carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. ScanEagle has been in military service since 2005 and was used by civilian operators for several years before that. There were too many problems (and it was too expensive) to modify ScanEagle for launch via a torpedo tube. It might have worked in theory but the navy decided to wait for better UAV technology to show up and Switchblade (which American marines began using in 2012) seemed to be the solution and, modified as Blackwing turned out to be what worked.