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    Vehicle Research and Subsystems




NRL's Vehicle Research Section (VRS) has been conducting research in unmanned systems technologies since the mid-1970s. The mission has been to develop affordably expendable unmanned flying machines and subsystems.

Initially the focus was solely on developing expendable vehicle platforms to carry electronic payloads for ship's self protection, but the technologies developed for these platforms were directly applicable to the entire unmanned systems industry. 

Vehicle designs include fixed and rotary wing vehicles, ground, ship and air deployed vehicles, electronic warfare (EW) decoys, reconnaissance aircraft, electric vehicles powered by various types of batteries and fuel cells, unpowered vehicles, vehicles designed for planetary exploration and more.


Core Capabilities 

The core of our research efforts are in the continuous development of new technologies for the advancement of state of the art, small, and affordably expendable vehicles. VRS 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



  • Wind Tunnel - NRL has on site a low Reynolds number closed circuit wind tunnel facility specially designed for use in developing small expendable vehicle systems. The tunnel features two 4' by 4' by 7' test sections: a closed aerodynamic test section and an open test section for propulsion testing. The tunnel's speed range is 20 to 200 knots.
  • Composite Fabrication Laboratory - VRS has a Composite Fabrication Laboratory and skilled technicians who have expertise with a wide variety of composite materials and fabrication techniques. Most of the more than 50 aircraft developed by VRS have been hand built in the on-site lab. In support of the EW Division, the composite lab team also designs and builds antenna radomes, composite mounting structures, and housings for electronic equipment. 

Research Programs 

The VRS team has the expertise and tools in-house to develop a vehicle system from conceptual design through detailed design, analysis, fabrication, subsystem testing, system integration and proof of concept testing. Rapid prototyping is often used to validate concepts early.

Vehicles and Technologies

  • ALICE: Air Launched Integrated Countermeasure, Expendable - ALICE 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.
  • 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.
  • Dragon Eye TM -  NRL's Electronic Warfare Division, in collaboration with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL), developed Dragon Eye as an affordably expendable airborne sensor platform to demonstrate Small Unit reconnaissance and threat detection capabilities.
  • EAGER -  Is a recoverable, tethered, electric-powered, rotary-winged vehicle with a RF repeater payload and represents a breakthrough in EW ship defense technology particularly for operation in littoral environments.
  • Extender -  Is an air-drop deployable unmanned air vehicle (UAV) for EW missions. Extender folds into a 32" x 32" x 20" enclosure for storage.
  • FINDER -  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.
  • FLYRT: FLYing Radar Target -  Is an MK-137-launched, RF-distraction decoy. It uses electric-propulsion and contains an NRL-developed fiber optic gyroscope that provides highly accurate angle rate data.
  • Fuel Cell Power for Small UAVs -  In 2005, NRL demonstrated fuel cell propulsion in a 5.6-pound unmanned aircraft, the "Spider Lion," which flew for 3 hours, 19 minutes. The proton exchange membrane fuel cell consumed about 1/2 ounce of hydrogen gas fuel during the flight.
  • MAC-1: Mars Astronaut Companion -  Is an adaptation of the Dragon Eye small UAV technology to be used as a tool for astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. 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 is a proven 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.
  • MITE: Micro Tactical Expendable -  The 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.
  • Sail-a-Plane -  Is a multi-mode autonomous vehicle platform that operates as an aircraft for high-speed self-deployment and as a sailboat for long endurance surface operations. Its lifting surfaces act as wings while in flight and sails while on 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.
  • Sea ALL: Sea Airborne Lead Line - Is the US Naval variant of the NRL/MCWL Dragon Eye TM. The system will provide Navy 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.
  • 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.
  • SmaRT-HFE: Small Recuperated Turboshaft Heavy Fuel Engine - The goal of the SmaRT-HFE program is to develop a four horsepower turboshaft engine with a specific consumption better than 0.6 lb/(hp*hr).
  • SPIDER: Scientific Payload Insertion Device Electric Rotor - Is a family of small, electric powered helicopters capable of fully autonomous flight, including takeoff and landing. Missions are monitored and directed by satellite communication.
  • Swallow - Developed for DARPA Swallow is designed to carry a real-time biological collection and identification payload.
  • Vantage -  Is a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle-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.
  • VLIIRDT: Vertically Launched Imaging Infrared Decoy Technologies - The VLIIRDT program was conducted to enable the development of the next generation IR decoy for anti-ship missile defense of future Navy ships.
  • Flimmer -  With Flimmer, Flying-Swimmer, 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.