PANAMA CITY, Fla. (NNS) -- A U.S. Navy aviation unit is establishing an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flight program aiding in the command's research, development, test and evaluation mission and specifically to aid in the development of UAS payloads and mine warfare and expeditionary warfare systems.
Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division's (NSWC PCD) Aviation Unit, home of the "Dragon Masters" helicopter squadron, says this is a collaborative effort with representatives from each of NSWC PCD's three technical codes, plus the Aviation Unit and Fleet Liaison Office.
Lt. Jeff Mandel, NSWC PCD special projects officer, said having the ability to utilize UAS capabilities is advantageous and significant to NSWC PCD and other Naval Sea (NAVSEA) Systems Commands as this technology is rapidly expanding throughout the world and it presents unique capabilities and threats that should be analyzed.
"There are several other NAVSEA commands wanting to utilize UAS capabilities but none of them have an aviation entity attached to them like NSWC PCD does which puts them at a significant disadvantage to try and understand how to create an unmanned aviation program from scratch," said Mandel. "UAS technology is developing at an incredible pace and these small commercial off-the-shelf systems are already becoming commonplace in the civilian world for recreation and commercial use, which benefits the U.S. Navy to be able to harness this technology early on and keep up with new developments."
Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Dill, NSWC PCD fleet liaison officer in charge, said the program was established to meet former Secretary of the U.S. Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus' direction and allow NSWC PCD to continue flying UASs for the development of various warfare systems, sensors and tech transition protocol.
"In 2016, SECNAV Mabus instructed Navy units and organizations desiring the ability to fly UASs to develop a flight training, qualification and certification process in accordance with Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) instructions and receive their permission," said Dill. "While NSWC PCD has flown UASs in the past for [Research, Development, Test & Evaluation] RDT&E purposes, the direction formalized the process to train and qualify personnel to conduct UAS operations."
This requirement was in addition to stricter UAS regulations promulgated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Due to these new requirements, the NSWC PCD Aviation Unit was involved to use their Naval Aviation expertise to navigate the new rules and regulations.
3-D Robotics X-8M quadcopter vehicles will be used as a starting point to safely train and refine procedures and practices before upgrading to larger systems. Mandel said the largest UASs the certification will allow the users to operate will weigh no more than 55 pounds.
Currently, NSWC PCD's Aviation Unit has submitted the final request to NAVAIR to obtain approvals needed to operate UASs. With this, they have custom made multiple local instructions to govern how users will train, operate and test these new systems.
In the near future, Dill said NSWC PCD will be qualifying and designating the aviation detachment pilots as the initial cadre of air vehicle operators (AVO) and unmanned aircraft commanders. Soon after, they will hold an inaugural training class to qualify command civilians and non-aviation personnel for flight. On completion of the training and designation by the commanding officer, the graduated will be AVOs.
Dill said he expects RDT&E involving UASs to cultivate a significant following from other Department of Defense agencies.
"We expect RDT&E involving UASs to grow, creating a dynamic developmental environment involving military and civilian personnel operating the systems to develop advanced capabilities for the Fleet," said Dill. "We will also be requesting additional flight clearances to operate an expanded inventory of small UAS."
Mandel believes this safe for flight certification will pay huge dividends for NSWC PCD and the U.S. Navy as a whole by being able to test new systems that support mine warfare and littoral operations missions.
"The commercial sector is building and improving small UASs at breakneck speed which the U.S. Navy would be hard pressed to keep up with using traditional acquisition pipelines," said Mandel. "Once we have our foot in the door, we can keep up with these new advances and rapidly bring new capabilities to our warfighters all over the world."
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