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US Navy Launches Fuel Cell-Powered Drone from Submerged Submarine

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The US Navy recently announced that a submerged submarine can launch unmanned drones, thus moving submarine technology towards a new stage of mission-critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

According to the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the USS Providence (SSN 719), which is a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, fired an all-electrical eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System (XFC UAS) from a torpedo tube. The technique utilized ----- wherein the XFC is placed within a Sea Robin launch vehicle fitted within a standard vertical Tomahawk missile launch tube ----- was akin to that used when setting aloft Tomahawk cruise missiles, thus indicating the drone can be deployed without requiring the submarine to surface. Instead, it is the outfitted Sea Robin that rises to the water surface, where it appears as a buoy. Once the buoy-like Sea Robin opens, it launches the XFC vertically into the air via an electrically-assisted take-off system, thus making it a small-footprint launch. The XFC need only reach its minimum operational velocity and altitude to autonomously spread its X-wing airfoil for horizontal flight.

The folding-wing drone can maintain low-altitude flight for over six hours because of the fuel cell that powers it. During the recent test flight, the XFC sent streaming video back to the USS Providence, other surface support vessels, and naval command authorities in Norfolk VA before landing at the Bahamas-based Naval Sea Systems Command Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center.

It took six years for the XFC to progress from concept board to the current stage, and the project was funded by SwampWorks at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Department of Defense Rapid Reaction Technology Office (DoD/RRTO).

Craig A. Hughes, acting ONR Director of Innovation, said: "Developing disruptive technologies and quickly getting them into the hands of our sailors is what our SwampWorks program is all about."

Reports state that the NRL Chemistry and Tactical Electronic Warfare Divisions team includes the design builders of the Sea Robin, Oceaneering International Inc, Protonex Technology Corp (fuel cell developer), and NUWC-NPT's Autonomous and Defensive Systems Department for Temporary Alteration (TEMPALT), in addition to the test demonstration's support.

NRL program developer and manager Dr. Warren Schultz added: "This six-year effort represents the best in collaboration of a Navy laboratory and industry to produce a technology that meets the needs of the special operations community...The creativity and resourcefulness brought to this project by a unique team of scientists and engineers represents an unprecedented paradigm shift in UAV propulsion and launch systems."

Indeed, the launch of the XFC extends the reach of the US Navy's submarine force as a long-range reconnaissance asset. The fuel-cell-powered XFC is inherently stealthy compared to its internal-combustion-powered UAV counterparts since the XFC is relatively free of thermal signature and noise. The XFC, in other words, offers a lower cost alternative that is easier to start, operate, and maintain.

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