NRL's Finder UAV: A Counterproliferation Asset

A. Cross
Tactical Electronic Warfare Division

Introduction: The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has been tasked to develop the Flight Inserted Detector Expendable for Reconnaissance (FINDER) by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The NRL effort is set to produce a warfighting component within the Chemical Combat Assessment System (CCAS). The goal is to exhibit a capability to determine the presence of chemical agents following an attack on a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) facility. The mission requires pre-strike deployment of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) (Predator). The FINDER UAVs are carried on the wing pylons of a specially modified USAF Predator, and then released to descend to low level and collect air samples. Under human supervision at the Predator Ground Control Station (GCS), the UAV gathers meteorological and chemical data for real-time information reports. After collecting data for up to 2 hours, the FINDER will autonomously fly to a designated recovery site, at which it will autonomously land and be recovered by friendly forces.

During the past two decades, NRL has conducted substantial research and mission demonstrations involving advanced technology, expendable mini-UAVs. Significant technological advances and breakthroughs were made in the areas of low Reynolds number (LRN) aerodynamics, in-flight deployability, advanced composite structures, and micro digital electronics. Utilization of this technology base has enabled rapid development of the fully autonomous FINDER UAV. This vehicle will add a highly capable, small, affordably expendable asset to the military inventory.

The FINDER has a propulsion system that used Predator aviation fuel and is able to sustain flight for 8 to 10 hours at 70 km/h airspeed. For this 26-kg vehicle that translates into an operational range of more than 350 nm. Figure 1 shows the CCAS system.

Fig 1 FIGURE 1
Chemical combat assessment system (CCAS) overview.

Timeline: The FINDER project was initiated in June 1999. Full development of the vehicle structure and fabrication of prototype units was completed at NRL. Advance autopilot development, communications, and autonomous flight testing of the prototypes essentially began in August 2000. The full CCAS system is scheduled for a military utility demonstration as a participant in the Counterproliferation Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) in May 2003.

Field Exercises Prove Feasibility of FINDER Concept: FINDER has participated in multiple field exercises over the past 18 months. Its initial rollout occurred at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in July 2001. This exercise and a follow-up test in October 2001 demonstrated the capability of the FINDER to search, detect chemical agents, and report detections in real time. After these initial tests, NRL continued the development effort toward full integration with the Predator UAV and its GCS for communications and control. Initial integration efforts culminated in June 2002 with a FINDER deployment from Predator. Subsequent to initial testing, FINDER has continued to participate in CCAS scheduled field exercises. Figure 2 shows FINDER's integration on the Predator and a deployment.

Fig 2
Predator/FINDER integration and initial deployment.

Summary: FINDER supports the European Command requirements for a chemical Battle Damage Assessment tool. The vehicle and current payload provides real time or near real time: local area meteorological data, integration with the existing Predator infrastructure, Predator stand-off capability, critical sample collection, return of sample to a safe area, and extended range egress.

As technology evolves, FINDER possesses the flexibility to accept a wide variety of modular payloads and deployment options. Figure 3 shows a demonstrated deployment alternative that was a fallout of the normal vehicle development. Future growth capabilities are already being discussed as follow-on options:

  • Toxic chemical/precursors sensing
    • IMS detectors reprogrammable to add new signatures;
  • Biological detection capability
    • Preliminary study of mature technologies
    • Flexibility for future payload integration options;
  • NAVY at-sea base option
    • Rail launch future capability is feasible;
  • Radiological hazard sensing
    • Flexibility for future payload integration options.
Fig 3
FINDER growth options include alternative deployment methods and payload modularity.

Acknowledgments: The author acknowledges the support of DTRA and Dr. J. Montgomery for enabling this project. It was the long hours and dedication of NRL Code 5712 and ITT personnel that made the accomplishments presented in this paper possible.

[Sponsored by DTRA]