Northrop Grumman's X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) may have grabbed headlines earlier this year with its first launches from and landings aboard an aircraft carrier, but Aerovel Corporation has completed an equally impressive launch, flight and landing of its Flexrotor UAV from a somewhat smaller carrier. And in this case, not only was the aircraft unmanned, so was the boat.
In what Aerovel believes is a world first, a 20-kg (44-lb) Flexrotor UAV launched from a remotely-controlled, 4-m (13-ft) skiff, starting its flight as a helicopter before transitioning to wing-borne flight and capturing images of the skiff while flying at both low and high speeds. The aircraft then transitioned back to helicopter flight mode and descended before being autonomously retrieved aboard the skiff.
You might think that would be cause enough for the Flexrotor to down tools and call it a day, but the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft wasn't done yet. After touching down and shutting off, the Flexrotor was automatically refueled before starting up and going through the whole process again. After the completion of the second flight, the aircraft was finally secured in a docking station aboard the skiff that then brought it back to shore.
The Flexrotor has a wingspan of 3 m (9.8 ft) and boasts two-day endurance capabilities that give it a range of over 3,000 km (1,865 mi). Aerovel says the autonomy demonstrated by the successful operation paves the way for the miniature robotic aircraft to economically perform civil operations on land and at sea. These include geological survey, weather reconnaissance, fishery surveillance, environmental monitoring, and offshore patrol.
The successful flight test, including the refueling, can be seen in the following video.