He also cannot comment on whether there are any plans to deploy the system operationally. The Orion has a long-span, one-piece composite wing for low drag and light weight — two keys to extended endurance at medium altitude. Another is the fuel-efficient turbo-diesel engines, which burn jet fuel.
Two other long-endurance UAVs aimed at the 100-hr.-plus mark, AeroVironment’s Global Observer and Boeing’s Phantom Eye, are hydrogen-fueled and designed to fly at high altitude. Both flew only a handful of times and are currently without a customer.
Long endurance also requires high reliability, and the Orion has a system architecture with similar levels of autonomy and redundancy to Aurora’s Centaur optionally piloted aircraft, a modified Diamond DA 42 that can fly unmanned or in FAA-certified manned mode. “Some pieces are triplex, some duplex. For extreme endurance, there can be no single-point failures,” he says.
Flights will build up to the 120-hr. demo over the coming months. “It will be a significant reach to expand the envelope that far,” Clancy says. Aurora, meanwhile, has the capacity in place to make “multiple” aircraft per year at its Mississippi plant, he says, if the Orion can make it down the “somewhat tortuous path” from a technology demonstration to an operational program of record.