Navy Tests Autonomous Aerial Supply Drone From Its Newest Supercarrier

The U.S. Navy recently conducted a demonstration in which a relatively small vertical takeoff and landing capable unmanned aircraft with autonomous capabilities delivered equipment to the supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford. The service has been increasingly exploring novel means of resupplying surface warships and submarines that may be better suited to future distributed concepts of operation.

On Feb. 21, 2021, a Blue Water Maritime Logistics Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) carried a payload described as “light-weight logistical equipment” from the Mid Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC) at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia to the Ford, which is presently in port there. The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, first acquired the Blue Water drone in order to conduct various logistics experiments in October 2020. The unmanned aircraft is presently assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 24, or UX-24, Naval Air Systems Command’s (NAVAIR) dedicated unmanned test and evaluation unit.

The Blue Water Maritime Logistics Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)., USN

“This UAS demonstration leverages cutting-edge technology to enhance our logistical efficiency across the Naval Air Force.” Navy Rear Admiral John Meier, head of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said after the test. “We have come a long way in integrating unmanned systems in Naval Aviation and the lessons learned today will help to accelerate this capability to the fleet.”  

The Blue Water drone is a version of a hybrid-electric design from Texas-based firm Skyways known simply as the V2.5. The manufacturer says that this unmanned aircraft features an artificial intelligence-driven flight system, has a maximum range of 500 miles, and can carry payloads weighing up to 30 pounds. 

It can fly autonomously between designated points. It can either land and release its payload at the desired location or drop it while hovering right above its destination, even if it’s in motion, as could easily be the case with a ship. 

“The long-range cargo transport, dubbed Blue Water UAS, is designed to operate with Naval Forces that typically operate in heavy winds over open water and require aircraft to land on pitching vessels at sea,” according to the Navy. “The technology demonstrator vehicle can operate in some of these conditions and further development will be required to meet the full Naval requirement.”

While the Skyways V2.5’s performance specifications and other capabilities appear impressive, its 30-pound payload capacity is relatively small. However, the Navy says that this is more than enough to potentially make the drone a valuable addition to its at-sea resupply options, even for very large ships, such as supercarriers.

“Carrier logistics is a complex and diverse problem set,” Navy Captain Paul Lanzilotta, Ford’s commanding officer, said. “Sometimes getting a small part delivered to the ship has a big impact on the availability of an embarked system or aircraft. Having UAS like Blue Water may improve our ability to quickly meet specific logistics needs where payload and ship’s location permit.”

The Navy has also said in the past that when ships encounter problems as a result of logistics-related issues that leave them partially mission capable or non-mission capable, 90 percent of the time this can be resolved by the delivery of a component weighing 50 pounds or less. Right now, the service says it routinely uses its SH/MH-60 Seahawk helicopters, as well as Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors, to bring these parts out to ships. This can only be an extremely costly process, especially if the total cargo weight is under 50 pounds, which is drastically lower than the maximum payload that these aircraft can carry. 

A Navy MH-60R Seahawk helicopter prepares to pick up a load of pallets during training., USN

It’s also worth noting that the air wings on Navy aircraft carriers presently have no drones of any kind. Something like the Skyways V2.5 would offer them a bottom tier of air transport logistics capability to go along with more traditional Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft. C-2 Greyhound fixed-wing aircraft presently perform the COD mission, but are set to be replaced by new CMV-22B Ospreys.

Beyond replacement parts, 30 pounds of payload capacity would be more than enough for a drone to deliver emergency rations or medical supplies. It could also bring various types of information, including orders and intelligence data, on physical media, out to ships, allowing them to avoid having to use electronic communications and data-sharing systems that might expose their position to enemy forces. In addition to experimenting with distributed logistics chains, the Navy has already been exploring possible ways for warships to communicate and share important information while maintaining radio silence in recent years. Skyways also says that its drones can fly at very low level to help avoid detection, in general.

An infographic describing various concepts of operation involving Skyways’ drones, including operations to and from warships., Skyways

Whatever their payloads might be, a large number of Blue Water drones could also be used together to increase overall cargo-carrying capacity, as long as the individual loads remained small. That would only be one component of a tiered distributed logistics chain and could be a valuable part of a “hub-and-spoke” arrangement, wherein other, more traditional assets would bring large amounts of cargo to forward operating bases for subsequent distribution to elements in a particular area. The final recipients could potentially include ground forces, as well as maritime assets. 

The Navy already has plans to expand the capabilities of the Blue Water drone, too. “We’re excited to get to work on such innovations as folding wings for better handling and ship storage, a dual propulsion system that runs on both electricity and JP-5 [jet fuel], an internal versus external cargo capacity, and an automatic dependent surveillance broadcast [ADS-B] identification system,” Bill Macchione, the Blue Water project lead, said back in November 2020.

No matter what, the Navy’s vision for conducting distributed operations in the future will demand new and additional options for at-sea resupply and otherwise establishing logistics chains that can support ships, submarines, and other naval assets. This will be especially true when it comes to activities in the broad expanses of the Pacific Ocean or the remote, but increasingly strategic Arctic region, where there is likely to be limited supporting infrastructure. 

With this in mind, it’s worth noting that the same month that the Navy acquired the Blue Water drone, it also conducted a test involving a quadcopter-type unmanned aircraft bringing a small payload out to the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson. That demonstration was part of a series of experiments that also saw various manned aircraft bring cargo out to that boat.

A quadcopter-type drone heads out to the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson during a test in 2020., USN

“The Ford Blue Water UAS supply demo is a first step in revolutionizing logistics support to maximize operational availability and lethality for these critical capital assets,” Navy Captain John Bush, the director of Aircraft Material and Engineering at Naval Air Forces Atlantic, said of this recent test.

All told, the Navy’s logistical future, at sea and elsewhere, looks set to be increasingly unmanned in nature.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.