Air Force Researchers Design, Build and Fly Autonomous Aircraft in 24 Hours

By Staff
6 Min Read

In an open area of the Eglin Air Force Base range known as B-70, a group of Air Force field grade officers and black-shirted innovators huddled together above an eight-pound model aircraft as they raced against their deadline to build it.

The group of officers and innovators, known as Black Phoenix, created a goal for themselves to design, create, build, and fly an unmanned aerial system within 24 hours. Around the 22.5-hour mark, the team secured the tail pieces and lastly, the propellers. The final step on a journey, that started more than six months prior, was to put the UAS in the air.

The officers began the project as part of their Blue Horizons fellowship. Blue Horizons is an Air Force Center for Strategy and Technology mission that is part think-tank, part incubator that promotes unconventional thinking and processes to Air Force problems with strategic impact.

The Black Phoenix crew is one of five teams wrapping up those projects after year-long fellowships.

Their three-person team took on the task of evaluating how to rapidly adapt small UASs, their technology and payloads based on the need and environment.

“Small UASs are becoming a new warfighting capability,” said Col. Dustin Thomas, a Blue Horizons fellow and Black Phoenix team member. “However, the Air Force can’t rapidly change these aircraft based on the threat environment or quickly use new technologies to meet the needs of a specific mission. Our project aims to find ways to change that.”

To take their project from the theoretical to practical, the team turned to Titan Dynamics, a small aerospace company focused on rapid and cost-effective UAS designs and development.

“We went in search of a young, smart, new start-up company, who was willing to take on a big risk,” said Lt. Col. Jordan Atkins, Black Phoenix member. “We couldn’t be more impressed with their ability to yield a miracle like this in only two months.”

The team used Titan’s software automated design software to create an aerodynamic UAS body based on weight, power, dimensions, and payload in less than 10 minutes. That design code gets fed into 3D printers to create the lightweight UAS body parts. Once all the pieces are printed, the team builds the newly created UAS designed specifically for its mission parameters.

Black Phoenix took this method and first tested it in Southwest Asia in March with Task Force-99 with some success. Then, they brought that test data and lessons learned to Eglin for their final in-the-field tests. They sought out the Air Force Chief Data and AI office’s Autonomy Data and AI Experimentation proving ground, which aims to accelerate development and experimentation in programs like the Black Phoenix project.

“Eglin is trying create a space to test small UASs and new technological capabilities very quickly,” Thomas said. “Historically, the Air Force is relatively slow in adapting and testing these technologies, and Eglin is trying to change that paradigm. We wanted to partner with them and be a part of that paradigm shift.

In support of the ADAX proving ground, the 413th Flight Test Squadron’s Autonomy Prime flight flies autonomous UASs regularly, and new aircraft and autonomy customers come to Eglin AFB to test their technologies.

During Black Phoenix’s week at Eglin AFB, the team tested six autonomous aircraft using the quick create, build, fly method for various missions including an eight-pound personnel recovery UAS that would deliver supplies to a simulated Airman behind enemy lines.

Sometimes the aircraft flew successfully and other times, when the team pushed the boundaries, the aircraft crashed. The successes and failures were all part of Black Phoenix’s goal to gather research on the feasibility of the rapidly created UASs idea.

What they did discover was regardless of flight or crash, the internal autonomy hardware and the payload within were virtually unharmed. To build back and try again meant only reprinting the outer UAS structure at a cost of around $20 to $50.

“We’ve taken big risks this week in flying so many new aircraft for the first time, but the risk is also low because these entire aircraft are built from commercial off-the-shelf items, so the financial investment is small,” said Lt. Col. Peter Dyrud, Black Phoenix team member.

After the test, the Black Phoenix team will put together their findings and present their study evaluation to the secretary of the Air Force Secretary and Air Force chief of staff in May.

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