The only thing that kept the Orion unmanned aircraft system from flying longer, says the Aurora Flight Scince press release, was “range availability.” But despite this limitation, the Orion UAS completed a record-breaking 80-hr. flight on Dec. 5-8. Aurora is now filing for the official world record. The previous record was held by Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk UAS and lasted 30.5 hours. In addition to doubling the previous flight time, the Orion UAS landed with 1,700 pounds of extra fuel.
This UAS project is managed by the U.S. Air Force Research Lab. It was started in 2007 with the goal of creating an aircraft that could fly for longer than any medium-altitude UAS ever had. Such a hardy UAS could significantly lower operating costs. Here’s a video of the Orion’s first flight.
For Aurora, this achievement is a step in the right direction for their goal of a 120-hr. flight. Tom Clancy, vice president at Aurora’s UAS business sector, told Aviation Week in 2013 that the program’s objectives are clear. They want, “a 120-hr. autonomous UAV carrying 1,000 lb. to 20,000 ft.”
The 1,000 pound weight, which Orion carried on its December test flight, is a simulated payload, which could theoretically include surveillance hardware. Aurora’s press release focused on the aircraft’s potential for improving surveillance capabilities and did not mention any weapon testing. John Langford, Aurora’s CEO said,
The need for persistent surveillance in areas far from U.S. bases is a geo-political fact of life… Orion can do this at operational costs significantly below any competing system. There are also important applications for this airplane in areas such as communications relay and Internet service provision.
Orion’s entire flight was monitored by officials from the National Aeronautic Association. The NAA keeps track of many aviation records for different classes of aircraft. This new record may not stand for long though. Another test flight is planned for 2015 with the goal of flying for 120 continuous hours. It would be an impressive achievement. Aviation Week says that the Orion has only logged a total of 158 flight hours.