In a remarkable feat of engineering, six aircraft, including an 8-pound personnel recovery system, were assembled within a mere 22.5 hours before their launch. This innovative method was spearheaded by the Air Force Center for Strategy and Technology’s Blue Horizons mission, a visionary think-tank dedicated to advocating unconventional strategies to meet tactical demands.

The driving force behind this project was the three-person Black Phoenix crew, selected from among the five teams concluding year-long Blue Horizons fellowships. Their focus centered on the rapid adaptation of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), their technology, and payloads to suit diverse operational environments.

“Small UASs are emerging as a critical warfighting capability,” remarked Col. Dustin Thomas, a member of the Black Phoenix team and a Blue Horizons fellow. “However, the Air Force faces challenges in swiftly modifying these aircraft to adapt to evolving threat environments or integrate new technologies for specific missions. Our project aims to address this gap.”

Swift UAS Development

To translate their vision into reality, the Black Phoenix team collaborated with Titan Dynamics, a nimble aerospace company renowned for its rapid and cost-effective UAS design capabilities. Leveraging Titan’s automated design software, the team could generate an aerodynamic UAS body, considering factors such as weight, power, dimensions, and payload requirements in under 10 minutes. This design blueprint was then fed into 3D printers to fabricate the lightweight UAS components.

“We sought out a dynamic, innovative startup willing to take bold risks,” explained Lt. Col. Jordan Atkins, another member of the Black Phoenix team. “We were thoroughly impressed by their ability to deliver such groundbreaking results in just two months.”

Accelerating Technology Testing

Black Phoenix initially tested their method in Southwest Asia with Task Force-99 in March, yielding promising results. Subsequently, they conducted final field tests at Eglin Air Force Base and collaborated with the Air Force Chief Data and AI office’s Autonomy Data and AI Experimentation proving ground to expedite development and experimentation.

According to team member Thomas, Eglin is spearheading efforts to establish a rapid testing space for small UASs and new technological capabilities. “Traditionally, the Air Force has been relatively slow in adapting and testing these technologies, and Eglin is endeavoring to shift that paradigm. We were eager to collaborate with them and contribute to this transformative shift,” he noted.

During their tenure at Eglin, the Black Phoenix team conducted tests on six autonomous aircraft using the rapid create, build, fly method across diverse missions. Notably, they deployed an 8-pound personnel recovery UAS tasked with delivering supplies to a simulated Airman behind enemy lines.

“We’ve undertaken significant risks this week by flying numerous new aircraft for the first time, but the risk is mitigated due to the use of commercial off-the-shelf items in building these aircraft, minimizing financial investment,” remarked Lt. Col. Peter Dyrud, the third member of the Black Phoenix team.

The Black Phoenix crew emphasized that while some flights were successful, others ended in crashes as they experimented with the technology. These experiences are invaluable in evaluating the feasibility of rapidly produced UASs. Following testing, the team plans to share their insights with Air Force leadership in May, potentially revolutionizing UAS development and deployment strategies for future operations.

By Impact Lab