Submarines: Survival of the Cheapest

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February18, 2007: Lockheed's famous Skunk Works development facility had their four ton MPUAV (Multi-Purpose Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), shot down by a much cheaper 40 pound, expendable, UAV that can be launched from torpedo tubes. The Department of Defense and navy were not willing to put up the millions needed to develop the MPUAV into a combat ready state. Meanwhile, the navys 40 pound Scan Eagle mini-UAV has been cheaply adapted for use from aircraft and submarines. The Scan Eagle has a seven pound payload, can stay in the air for twenty hours and carries day, or night vision, stabilized (the image remains locked on the same area, even if the UAV is being buffeted by wind) cameras. Using GPS, the UAV can either fly a pre-programmed route, or proceed under operator control via radio signals. The ground version is launched using a pneumatic catapult, and lands by flying by a fifty foot pole holding a skyhook system. Scan Eagle has a top speed of 93 kilometers an hour. Development began in 2002, and it entered service in February 2003.

The new version of Scan Eagle has been reconfigured so that it can be launched from a bomb rack on an aircraft, or from a torpedo tube in a sub. Once launched into the air, the wings pop out and the gasoline engine starts. The air/sea Scan Eagle has the same flight characteristics of the land based version, and can be recovered by a ship or on land, or just allowed to crash.

All versions of the Scan Eagle cost about less than $100,000, while the MPUAV would have cost over ten million dollars each. An operator in the launching aircraft or submarine controls the Scan Eagle UAV, much like is done on land (using a radio link and a laptop equipped with control software.) The air launched version enables one aircraft to keep a close eye on a large amount of terrain, although the Scan Eagle will probably use a satellite commo link to enable operators on the ground (and probably far away) to control the UAVs after the manned aircraft run out of fuel and must depart. Submarines use a mini-torpedo, that, after reaching the surface, ejects the Scan Eagle high enough into the air so that the wings can pop out and the engine start. Once airborne, the Scan Eagle gives the submerged sub (using an antenna floated to the surface and connected to the sub via a cable) twenty hours of UAV reconnaissance. This can be used for all sorts of missions.

The air-launched Scan Eagle is also being adapted for launch from transports like the C-130 and MV-22.

 


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