After getting our first look before Christmas, Boeing has now released the first video, albeit brief, of their entrant into the MQ-25 Stingray Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) competition. The video offers fleeting new glimpses from different angles of the drone, and from these clips we can come to some new conclusions, but the video also prompts new questions as well.
Like the two earlier images of Boeing's Phantom Works' new CBARS design, this release was also pushed through the Boeing Defense Twitter account. It also lines up perfectly with what Boeing told The War Zone directly after the December 19th unveil, that more imagery would be released in early January.
The short video gives us a few new angles of the company's MQ-25 prototype. First we get an oddly framed, eye-level panning shot of the aircraft's fuselage. The aircraft's wing roots and large splayed V-tail can also be seen. What's missing is an air intake large enough to feed a jet engine capable of propelling a tanker-drone carrying many thousands of pounds of fuel.
Then we get maybe the most exciting shot out of the video, a wide, side-view clip of the MQ-25 being rolled out of a hangar. The aircraft looks way more streamlined and elongated than expected. The nose is briefly seen and its leading area is a planar, trapezoid-shaped flat design. The aircraft's chine-line that runs along the edge of its fuselage is very prominent in this clip as well, along with its very heavy duty landing gear. But once again, no large, protruding jet intake can be seen.
The next quick set of clips show the aircraft's nose section, including its array of pitot tubes and a detailed view of its chine-line. We see some interesting angles as that edge transitions from the wing root to the nose.
The next shot, a closeup of the Boeing logo and the stenciled motif on the side of the drone's fuselage is maybe the most telling as we can clearly read the stenciled caution box on the top of the fuselage: "JET INTAKE DANGER" with an arrow pointing up.
Then we get an awesome underside view of Boeing's MQ-25 and its hardy landing gear. The fuselage, even for a prototype/demonstrator, is rounded and smooth and its joints appear nearly nonexistent. Most notably we see that the aircraft's tailhook is shrouded, and drops down out of the fuselage. Also worth noting is the large rounded lump midway down the wing. This is the best glimpse of the aircraft's wing as of yet.
We finally get a running shot down the MQ-25's long fuselage, with various access panels visible before the video returns us to the first images released of the MQ-25 on December 19th, 2017.
So what are the takeaways here?
1.) The MQ-25 design appears to feature an entirely flush dorsal jet intake. You can even see the intake cover in the rollout sequence. Designing an intake completely flush with the top of an aircraft, especially one that appears to have lifting body traits, is usually avoided do to airflow disruption issues that can have catastrophic results, especially during maneuvering and terminal phases of flight.
Any issues with airflow during takeoff and landing would be magnified during carrier operations, where the aircraft is hurtled off the deck at high acceleration via a catapult and when the aircraft lands, making rapid engine corrections at slow speed and high angles of attack. Digital engine controls have come a long way when it comes avoiding engine anomalies due to airflow issues, but a flush-mounted inlet on this design for this mission in particular could signal some sort of a breakthrough. The only other possibility is that a protruding engine inlet has not been fitted yet, although that seems somewhat unlikely based on the imagery we have seen so far.
2.) There appears to be more low observable design elements built into Boeing's MQ-25 than what the CBARS requirements dictate, which are none. Basic low-observable features, including the inlet, likely the exhaust, tail configuration, and especially elements of the fuselage design, not to mention the enclosed tailhook and apparent focus on creating smooth, continuously rounded surfaces, point to the possibility that MQ-25 has a reduced radar signature, and that its signature could possibly be reduced much further if it were adapted to take on new missions in the future.
This approach isn't all that surprising for the Phantom Works. Even the Super Hornet design features low-observable elements, from its semi-S shaped intakes and radar defeating engine fan baffles, to sawtoothed edges on some of its access points and doors, not to mention the use of low-reflectivity composites in key areas of the airframe. But when it comes to the MQ-25, being able to get a foothold in the emerging unmanned carrier-borne aircraft space, and "spiraling" the development of new and enhanced capabilities without having to design an entirely new airframe is simply a good business decision. The unmanned is the future, even to a degree that people don't realize, and especially when it comes to naval aviation.
But beyond the engine inlet mystery, there are other things to ponder. The bulge on the wing is interesting. It likely includes a wing folding mechanism, although satellite communications arrays would be another, albeit less likely possibility. We also don't see that large ventral door/panel open in any of these clips like we did in the reveal photo.
Maybe what's most intriguing is what this video doesn't show. The MQ-25's wings, portions of its tail structure, exhaust, and the aircraft's upper fuselage design are still a mystery. Why these features have yet to be shown is also unknown. Are they sensitive in nature or is Boeing just looking to trickle out images of the aircraft over time to build public interest in it? We just don't know.
But what we do know is that the Phantom Works' take on the MQ-25 Stingray seems to be a bit more exotic than what was initially let on.
The Navy's CBARS contract, which General Atomics and Lockheed are also competing for, is slated to be awarded near the end of this Summer. As always we will keep you right up to date as the competition unfolds.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com