What I Learned from Flying the Transwing UAS from the Deck of the USNS Burlington

POV by Tim Whitehand

VP of Engineering at PteroDynamics. Tim is an aeronautical engineer, project manager, and fixed-wing and rotary aviator with over 15 years of experience in the design, manufacturing, and test of innovative aircraft from prototype to certified aircraft systems for commercial and military applications.

Over six days last October, PteroDynamics conducted nine successful flight demonstrations of its autonomous Transwing® vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft from the flight deck of the USNS Burlington during the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet Hybrid Fleet Campaign Event (HFCE). The event was designed as a proving ground for emerging unmanned systems and their integration into fleet operations. It was also an opportunity for senior leaders from the U.S. Navy – including Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti – and 10 foreign partner countries to see the latest technology in action.

The Transwing unmanned aerial system (UAS) takes a very different approach to overcome the inherent limitations of traditional VTOL aircraft design. It combines the speed and range of fixed-wing aircraft with exceptional VTOL performance in an efficient, highly automated platform. Its wings fold and unfold to transition smoothly between vertical and horizontal flight. With wings folded, the Transwing has a high degree of controllability and quadcopter-like handling qualities. This gives it excellent gust tolerances and the ability to take off and land in high sea states. The Transwing then extends its wings for efficient, long-distance fixed-winged horizontal flight.

These characteristics make the Transwing an ideal platform for maritime resupply and logistics missions not only for naval defence but also for commercial applications, including offshore oil and gas and commercial shipping.

Top Lessons from Our U.S. Navy Sea Trials

PteroDynamics is a smaller player in the UAS space, but the Transwing’s success at the HFCE surprised a lot of people. Here are my takeaways from that experience and all the hard work we and our industry partners put into that success.

  1. The XP-4 Transwing Is a More Potent Test Platform Than I Had Imagined: The XP-4 Transwing flown from the USNS Burlington was initially conceived as a test bed, but it is proving to be a very powerful platform for developing critical technologies including mechanical systems, power and electronics, flight control navigation, command and control, and automation. Using the surprisingly robust XP-4 to design and test essential capabilities has enabled us to mitigate risks associated with the development of the larger XP-5 Transwing aircraft currently under development. Because of the XP-4’s success, our customers will benefit from a better Transwing platform and UAS systems that will reach the market sooner.  
  2. Real-World Operational Test Flights with the U.S. Navy Speed Technology Development: The HCFC event proved to be a terrific test bed to accelerate the development of uncrewed systems technologies and their integration into U.S. and allied naval operations. Flight testing from the USNS Burlington allowed us and other UAS system developers to gather indispensable real-world operational performance data you can’t get in any other environment. It was a valuable opportunity to learn from executing autonomous takeoffs and landings using computer vision, transitioning from VTOL to cruise flight performance, and navigating to and from a moving ship at sea. We are fortunate to participate in a program that will help us accelerate innovation.
  3. You Can Move Mountains with Like-Minded Partners: The aerospace industry is dominated by large legacy players. Achieving a very big step forward in technology quickly means doing things differently – and better. The same old ways won’t work. What’s the way forward? As a smaller company, our success comes from the thoughtful cultivation of collaborative relationships with partners including Allocor.techFlightHouse Engineering, and Applied Navigation that have deep domain experience in areas like avionics and aero mechanical engineering.
    We view our strategic partners as team members. We work hard to nurture a shared vision to create win-win relationships and opportunities with the common goal of building the critical pieces of the Transwing platform and helping define the future of autonomous UAS. This strategy creates a force multiplier effect, and it has allowed a smaller company like PteroDynamics to rapidly design, build, and test innovations.
  4. The Transwing Is a Rare Bird: The U.S. Navy needs shipboard-deployable multi-mission VTOL UAS systems. However, the benefits of operating contemporary UAS from Navy vessels only marginally overcome the negative impact to other ship operations. Years of testing and development by many companies have been unable to achieve the step change needed to truly integrate UAS into the fleet. At HCFC, it was clear all eyes were on PteroDynamics. We were the next kid on the block with something new and with real potential. We have a tremendous opportunity not only to demonstrate the unique capability of the Transwing technology, but also to show what a valuable tool it can be for the U.S. Navy and its allies. 

The Future: Make Maritime UAS Indispensable

The challenge for everyone in the industry is to enhance existing mission capabilities with safer, more cost-effective UAS operations such as critical repair re-supply in adverse weather and combat environments where sending a manned asset is too risky.  PteroDynamics’ vision is to develop a great, versatile UAS VTOL aircraft with the utility and longevity to be a “30-year” platform that can meet all of these challenges.

In addition to the right mission capabilities, the eventual widespread use of UAS systems will depend on bringing down the operating costs. This means making them reliable, safe, and simple to operate. Getting to this point requires advances in automation technology to reduce operator workload without compromising safety, including allowing one operator to control multiple UAS aircraft that communicate with each other to complete missions. To that end, the Navy’s HFCE event and programs like it are an important step in the maturation of our industry.