August 06, 2012
Fred George Manassas, Va.
Aurora Flight Sciences is raising the stakes in airborne intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) platforms by lowering costs and increasing operational flexibility. The Manassas-based company's $4.5-million Centaur OPA, short for Optionally Piloted Aircraft, can perform most of the ISR missions of the $8.3 million Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER C-12W or $3 million General Atomics RQ-1 Predator, among other piloted or unpiloted ISR aircraft. The first customer is Armasuisse, the Swiss defense department's procurement agency. Based at Emmen, the aircraft will be used as a flying testbed to evaluate the integration of unmanned aircraft into the Swiss national airspace system.
For videos showing the aircraft taking off and landing autonomously, check out the digital edition of AW&ST on leading tablets of smartphones, or visit AviationWeek.com/centaur
Centaur OPA can be operated as a manned or unmanned ISR aircraft. The conversion between piloted and unpiloted configurations can be finished in under 4 hr. by two technicians using standard hand tools, according to the company. Just as important, without its unmanned flight-control-system equipment connected to the controls, Centaur can be piloted as a fully certified Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 23/European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) CS-23 airworthy aircraft that can be flown through Class B, C, D, E and G airspace.
Our pilot report from inside the aircraft is most unusual because we never touched the flight controls during the entire mission. That is a first for Aviation Week. We belted into the right rear seat of the Centaur with Jason Fine, project engineer, who strapped into the left rear seat. From this spot, Fine played the role of UAV ground controller. His laptop was tied to the aircraft's automatic flight-control-system (FCS) computer by an Ethernet cable rather than using the standard ground-to-air or optional satellite-to-air data link of a ground control station.
Tom Washington, chief engineer for the Centaur project and the company's chief pilot, occupied the left pilot seat, while the 55-lb. FCS servo package tray occupied the space where the right front seat normally is mounted.
Washington's primary function was to ferry the aircraft between Manassas Regional Airport where Aurora Flight Sciences has its headquarters and Warrenton-Fauquier Airport in Midland, Va., where the automated demonstration flight would begin and end. During the demo mission, he would cede control to the robotic FCS in the right seat.
On Runway 33 at Warrenton-Fauquier, Washington positioned the aircraft for departure. He flipped on the FCS computer switches, causing the servos to engage, and he removed his hands and feet from the controls. After that, he monitored the functionality of the automated FCS computer to assure the safety of the three occupants for the rest of the flight.