From Monday's flypast at Webster Field, Virginia, by L-3's Mobius to Wednesday's launch announcement of an optionally piloted version of the Austrian Diamond DA 42 light twin, optionally piloted vehicles (OPVs) have been newsmakers at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference in Washington DC.
While Mobius is still looking for a launch customer, Proxy Aviation Systems is getting ready for an experimental overseas deployment of its Skyraider OPV, which like Mobius has its design origins in Burt Rutan's LongEze homebuilt. (Both designs were created by others as offshoots of the Rutan original.) Proxy has been successful in getting the attention of the Navy's special operations community, with an innovative concept which can involve several aircraft - each carrying different sensors and relays in optimal locations - with one manned aircraft supervising the operations of others.
Aurora's announcement - teamed with Diamond Aircraft and Rockwell Control Technologies, with its Athena flight control system - takes the trend one step further, because it is supported by two major target customers "in the advanced discussion stage" according to Aurora CEO John Langford. One customer is in the civilian/scientific realm, says Langford, while the other "has extensive operational experience in the Middle East" with the OPV's precursor, the DA 42 MPP manned surveillance aircraft.
That customer is almost certainly the Royal Air Force, which has been operating DA 42 MPPs in the Middle East since 2008. Operated under contract by DO Systems, the aircraft have been used to supplement Predator and Reaper UAVs.
What's behind the interest in OPVs? One reason is that commercial-type platforms offer long endurance - if not quite in the Predator class - combined with large payload capacity in weight and volume, together with low acquisition costs. But the biggest reason is the fact that UAVs still have limited access to airspace. Proxy CEO Pat Moneymaker notes that the OPV can provide an operator with a fast-track method of evaluating and deploying a new payload: it can be installed and tested with a pilot on board and then deployed as a UAV with no hardware or software changes.
The OPV can also be used with a pilot in-theater, with the pilot acting as mission controller while the aircraft flies itself. One result - it's less dependent on scarce beyond line-of-sight bandwidth. As one observer notes, "The Mk 1 eyeball/Mk 1 brain is a heck of a lot more efficient in filtering what to send or not send, so you don't get oceans of blue with a little biddy sail boat somewhere on it."
For Aurora, the Diamond OPV is also a stepping stone to its Orion long-endurance UAV, using the same engine and flight control system.