Vehicles & Subsystems

NRL's Vehicle Research Section has developed more than 50 unmanned flying machines since the mid-1970s. With most of these designs, the focus has been to develop affordably expendable systems. These vehicle designs include fixed and rotary wing vehicles, ground, ship and air deployed vehicles, EW decoys, reconnaissance aircraft, electric vehicles powered by various types of batteries and fuel cells, unpowered vehicles, vehicles designed for planetary exploration and more. Very few resemble traditional aircraft and all address unique mission requirements leading to their unique configurations.


The core of our research efforts are in the continuous development of new technologies for the advancement of the state of the art in small, affordably expendable vehicles. The Vehicle Research Section has initiated or advanced development in low Reynolds number aerodynamics, in-flight wing deployment, nesting wing aerodynamics, advanced composite structures, small electric motors and controllers, fuel cell technologies for airplane propulsion, autonomous navigation techniques, and rotary wing vehicle technologies.

Vehicle Fact Sheets

ALICE: Air Launced Integrated Countermeasure, Expendable

The ALICE (Air Launched Integrated Countermeasure, Expendable) was a research effort to develop the technologies for an unmanned platform to be air launched from a tactical aircraft at speeds up to 0.8 Mach and altitudes up to 45,000 ft. After separation, ALICE glides using tail control surfaces until it reaches a speed of approximately 250 kt. The cruise wing and propeller then deploy and the heavy fuel engine starts. ALICE will cruise approximately 200 nm in one hour before the outer wing panels deploy for loiter. In the loiter mode, it will operate at 65 kt with a two hour endurance and carry a 25 lb payload. Research efforts included development of the polymorphic wing, a JP-8 fueled rotary engine, a high efficiency starter/generator, a folding variable pitch propeller, and an advanced EW payload.

CICADA: Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft

CICADA is a concept for a low-cost, GPS-guided, micro disposable air vehicle that can be deployed in large numbers to "seed" an area with miniature electronic payloads. These payloads could be interconnected to form an ad-hoc, self-configuring network. Communication nodes, sensors, or effectors can then be placed in a programmable geometric pattern in hostile territory without directly over-flying those regions or exposing human agents on the ground.

Dragon Eye (TM)

NRL's Electronic Warfare Division, in collaboration with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL), developed an affordably expendable airborne sensor platform, Dragon Eye, to demonstrate Small Unit reconnaissance and threat detection capabilities. The ONR/MCWL sponsored Dragon Eye consists of a man-portable, 5.5 lb., bungee launched air vehicle and a miniature Ground Control Station (GCS) to provide command and control and receive the aircraft's video and GPS position. The vehicle characteristics enable an operational capability in adverse weather conditions. Dragon Eye features autonomous flight capability to allow one-person operation.


EAGER represents a breakthrough in EW ship defense technology particularly for operation in littoral environments. It is deployed prior to entering a potential engagement area, enabling it to detect the first radar pulse emitted by approaching missiles. This is unlike earlier decoys that were not deployed until after a threat was detected. EAGER is a recoverable, tethered, electric-powered, rotary-winged vehicle with a RF repeater payload. It was designed to have an endurance of up to 1000 hours as compared to the few minutes previous decoys lasted, and it is fully recoverable and redeployable.


Extender is an air-drop deployable unmanned air vehicle (UAV) for Electronic Warfare missions. Extender folds into a 32" x 32" x 20" enclosure for storage. For deployment, the Extender enclosure is simply pushed out of the door of a helicopter, transport, or patrol aircraft. Upon being air-dropped, a parachute is deployed, the enclosure is shed, and the wings unfold and lock into position. Next, the parachute is released and the electric motor is switched on. Extender has a 2.3-hour endurance, cruising at 45 mph, powered by LiSO2 batteries.


NRL's Electronic Warfare Division worked with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and General Atomics to develop the first tandem unmanned air vehicle (UAV) system in the USAF inventory as part of the CP2 ACTD for the European Command. The FINDER UAV is carried on a wing pylon of a specially modified USAF Predator UAV, then released remotely to descend to a low level and collect samples of a plume that systems aboard the Predator have indicated may contain chemical weapons agents.


NRL's FLYing Radar Target (FLYRT) is a MK-137-launched, RF-distraction decoy. It is a complementary system to the NULKA RF decoy. FLYRT was designed to fly at ship-like speeds following a rocket-boosted launch from the MK137 chaff launcher. It uses electric-propulsion and contains an NRL-developed fiber optic gyroscope that provides highly accurate angle rate data. The decoy was first modeled in a Full-Engagement Decoy Simulator, which provided a detailed model of specific missiles, allowing for close examination of particular defense strategies. On September 9, 1993, the decoy's performance was fully demonstrated at NRL's Chesapeake Bay Detachment.

Fuel Cell Power for Small UAVs

The Naval Research Laboratory demonstrated fuel cell propulsion in a 5.6-pound unmanned aircraft, the "Spider Lion," which flew for 3 hours, 19 minutes in November of 2005. The proton exchange membrane fuel cell consumed about 1/2 ounce of hydrogen gas fuel during the flight. The fuel cell power system, which weighed 3.8 pounds, was designed, constructed, and integrated into the test airplane using mainly commercially-available components. Spider Lion's purpose is to research technologies for fuel cell applications that will allow electrically powered devices to achieve a longer operating time than is possible with present battery technology.

MAC-1: Mars Astronaut Companion

The MAC-1 is an adaptation of the Dragon Eye small UAV Technology to be used as a tool for astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. After assembling the aircraft by unfolding the single piece airframe without the need for tools, the storage container becomes the PC based Control Station. Interchangeable payloads would include video and infrared imagers, atmospheric sensors, magnetometers, communication relays, and navigational beacons.

Mars Exploration

NRL has participated in several design studies toward the development of aircraft for exploring the surface of Mars. Airborne sensing has proven to be an excellent method for large scale geologic analysis and surveying on earth and the same techniques can be applied to planetary science for planets containing an atmosphere. Aircraft based sensors can cover a much greater surface area than rovers at a much greater resolution than orbiting platforms with accurate flight path control that is not possible using balloon systems.

MITE: Micro Tactical Expendable

The Micro Tactical Expendable (MITE) micro air vehicle is designed to be the smallest practical aircraft that can still perform useful Navy missions, such as over-the-hill reconnaissance, surveillance, and electronic warfare. The electrically powered MITE is optimized for low speed, low altitude operation; different wingspans (10-24 inches) are used depending on the required payload weight and mission endurance. Several very low cost autonomous flight control systems for MITE have been developed and demonstrated, including a single-waypoint GPS navigation system, a heading and altitude-hold navigation system, an optic flow terrain avoidance system, and both optical and inertial stabilization systems.


The Sail-a-Plane multi-mode autonomous vehicle is a platform that operates as an aircraft for high-speed self-deployment and as a sailboat for long endurance surface operation. Its lifting surfaces act as wings while in flight and sails while on the water. It draws propulsive power from an onboard energy store while flying, and from the wind as a sailboat. Photovoltaic cells and a generator driven by a water-impeller provide control and sensing power while sailing. The vehicle can also convert back to an airplane and takeoff from the water.

Samara: A Stop-Rotor Micro Air Vehicle

The Samara is an electrically powered stop-rotor converting vehicle that combines the slow flying, hover, and vertical ascent capabilities of rotary wing operation with the fast, efficient flight of fixed wing aircraft. A pair of single-blade, rotary/fixed wing panels is attached at the roots to separate coaxial shafts. For low-speed flight the wing panels are driven as contra-rotating rotors for lift. Differentially tilting propellers provide thrust and control in all flight conditions. For fixed wing flight the wing panels are stopped opposite each other to become a conventional wing. This configuration eliminates the airflow reversal over the wing that occurs upon conversion in other stop-rotor designs.


Sea ALL (Sea Airborne Lead Line) is the US Naval variant of the NRL/MCWL Dragon EyeTM. The system will provide Naval vessels with a close-in reconnaissance capability for harbor patrol, maritime interception, surveillance, and search and rescue. The man-portable, 4.5 lb airplane is hand-launched and remotely piloted using a compact, portable ground control station. The operator flies the Sea ALL using the video downlinked from the color or black and white camera in the nose of the aircraft.

SENDER: Self-Navigating Drone Expendable/Recoverable

SENDER is a man portable, multipurpose, GPS-Navigating, low-cost airobotic platform that is designed to carry a 2.5 lb. payload 100 nm. SENDER features electric propulsion, advanced digital avionics, lightweight composite structures, and low cost fabrication techniques. This prototype demonstrates the feasibility of small, advanced technology, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to effectively perform many high-value Navy and other military missions.

SmaRT-HFE: Small Recuperated Turboshaft Heavy Fuel Engine

The goal of the Naval Research Lab's SmaRT-HFE program is to develop a four horsepower turboshaft engine with a specific consumption better than 0.6 lb/(hp*hr). The turbine and high-effectiveness heat exchanger will be produced from low cost ceramic materials, which retain strength at higher temperatures than metals. The engine will start and run on logistics fuels (JP-5 / JP-8), enabling future unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to comply with the DoD/NATO "single fuel forward" policy.

SPIDER: Scientific Payload Insertion Device Electric Rotor

NRL's Vehicle Research Section has developed a family of small, electric powered helicopters capable of fully autonomous flight, including takeoff and landing. Missions are monitored and directed by satellite communication, allowing operation independent of line-of-sight RF links. Maximum gross vehicle weight is 42 pounds, cruise speed is 35 MPH, and endurance is 30 minutes, including 5-7 minutes of hovering flight. SPIDER is easily transportable and uses rechargeable batteries.


Swallow was developed for DARPA to carry a real-time biological collection and identification payload. The fiber-optic biosensor collection was developed by NRL's Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering Division. The Swallow was the first unmanned air vehicle (UAV) to fly a real-time bio collection mission during an exercise for bio defense. The Swallow has a 15 foot wing span and weighs 60 pounds. It is powered by a 1500 w brushless dc electric motor driving a five-bladed propeller.


Vantage is a HMMWV-transportable, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) unmanned air vehicle. With fully autonomous flight operation and differential GPS navigation, Vantage will perform Reconnaissance Surveillance Target Acquisition (RSTA) and Communications Relay missions. The vehicle is powered by the UEL 801 42-HP heavy-fuel (JP5, JP8, Jet A) rotary engine. To save weight and mechanical complexity, the ducted tail rotor is electrically driven with power from an onboard starter/generator.

VLIIRDT: Vertically Launched Imaging Infrared Decoy Technologies

The Vertically Launched Imaging Infrared Decoy Technologies (VLIIRDT) program was conducted to enable the development of the next generation IR decoy for anti-ship missile defense of future Navy ships. The VLIIRDT test vehicle investigates the feasibility of the expendable vehicle technology required to deliver IR countermeasures. Upon detection of a threat, VLIIRDT is launched vertically.


NRL is merging two separate research areas — unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) — to significantly improve tactical availability of UUVs in time critical situations. Common across the services, autonomous vehicles are being seen as an effective projection of force, both above and below the water’s surface. Unlike an air-deployed Sonobuoy, ongoing research into novel bio-inspired UUV finned propulsion has potential benefits for autonomous motion beyond the insertion point. This combination of an airplane mode for UUV insertion is the thrust of the Flimmer program.