Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford, executive officer of PEO(U&W), gives updates regarding manned/unmanned aircraft and weapon systems milestones achieved over the past year. 

Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford, executive officer of PEO(U&W), gives updates regarding manned/unmanned aircraft and weapon systems milestones achieved over the past year. 

Advances in Unmanned Systems, Additive Manufacturing, Small Business Collaboration Highlight First Day of Sea-Air-Space 2024

Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) kicked off the 2024 Sea-Air-Space Expo on Monday with panel discussions on manned/unmanned and weapon systems advancements, additive manufacturing success stories and collaborative opportunities for small businesses to join with NAVAIR to aid the warfighter. 

The first panel was led by Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford, executive officer of the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. PEO(U&W) includes 12 programs offices that design, build, deliver and sustain the Navy's unmanned aircraft, weapons, targets, aircrew systems and common support equipment. The PEO delivers state-of-the art warfighting capabilities to Sailors and Marines around the world.  

Tedford highlighted a few innovations created over the past year from the program including the joint SDB-II (Small Diameter Bomb) Smart Weapon reaching initial operational capability for F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets; a soundwave deflection helmet for deployed sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72); the BQM-177 Subsonic Aerial Target integrating the ALE-47 countermeasures payload; Advanced Precision Weapon Kill Systems (APWKS) being deployed in the Red Sea to aid in conflicts there; the addition of the AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles to F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft also deployed in Red Sea support activities; and the program office examining efforts to advance engine testing capabilities. 

Tedford said since last year, the unmanned air systems (UAS) program has deployed three MQ-4 Triton unmanned air systems (UAS) to Guam; the TRV-150 tactical resupply UAS has reached initial operating capability (IOC); the MQ-9 Reaper completed its first flight at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland; delivered the first MQ-25 Stingray static test aircraft, aiming toward IOC in 2026; and began autonomous behavior on the MQ-20 Avenger UAS. 

“[The MQ-25] is our first step toward the air wing of the future,” Tedford said. “It is the length of an F-18 with the wingspan of an E-2 [Hawkeye]. It is not a small UAV. This is a 48,000-pound UAV designed specifically for carrier operations.”  

Tedford said the program office is planning the first flight test for the MQ-25 by this time next year, with an IOC set for the end of 2026.  

Artificial intelligence and autonomy of UAS is an ongoing development, he said, but one the team is approaching with an air of caution. 

“In our ability to get after a truly artificial intelligence autonomous system, especially one in the future, that we have the intent of arming with weapons, we're going to have to start with a foundation of trust,” he said. “How do we trust? How do we evaluate? How do we test to make sure that the autonomy in the AI is doing exactly what we want it to do and it's staying within the guardrails of both our rules of engagement also our ethical rules of engagement for AI and autonomous systems?” 

Tedford said the Air Force is leading the way with AI autonomy and the Navy is following, with both agreeing that interoperability and commonality across all platforms is necessary. 

The other focus of the program office is the increasing need for more weapon capacity. 

“We are working to improve the robustness of the weapons industrial base throughout the country, both organic and commercial,” Tedford said. “That includes energetics. It includes manufacturing. It includes the precision machine requirements that are also required in this environment. We have for a long time been pursuing the exquisite when it comes to our weapons. And those exquisite weapons do some really, really cool things. Not only do we need the exquisite, we also need affordable mass and we need it quickly.” 

Tedford emphasized the need for industry to deliver weapon systems on time. 

“Everything on your contract is absolutely critical to this fight. If you can't or you have challenges, we need to know what they are. We need to work together to solve those challenges.” 

Theodore Gronda, program manager for the NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing (AM) Team, began his panel discussion by highlighting that the AM team was established in order to create parts in small quantities, when needed, to get a grounded aircraft back in service in a faster time than relying on industry partners for supply chain gaps. Additive Manufacturing is the ability to “print” an object based on information fed into a device much like a 3D printer. 

Gronda said NAVAIR began supporting AM developments by separating them into three tiers. Tier 1 AM printers focus on “Commodity Polymers,” and is responsible for creating non-critical, smaller items such as knobs, clips and caps. Tier 2 AM printers focus on “Industrial Polymers,” including non-critical and critical parts such as tools, covers, brackets and mounts. Tier 3 AM printers are “Industrial Metal” and create non-critical and critical metal parts including valve bodies, gearboxes, fuel and engine components and manifolds. 

One of the newer capabilities Gronda announced was the addition of a “Solid State” cold spray technology, which uses a metal powder to spray and build up or repair a designated item. 

Currently, there are 96 AM devices deployed to 33 sites, including deployed aircraft carriers.  

A recent victory for the AM team’s capabilities was when they received word that a ship’s optical landing system had failed. There were aircraft aboard the ship that depended upon that critical landing system and were unable to fly. The ship contacted the AM team and they got to work, learning that the damaged part was simply a coupler, no bigger than four quarters. Within 12 hours, the team was able to redesign the coupler, test it, receive approval, and send the coupler data electronically to the ship where it was then printed. As they were about to install the part, the ship received orders to deploy and the repair was put on hold for a few hours to enable the ship to transit to its destination. Once it arrived, the coupler was installed, and aircraft from that ship were deployed to intercept UASs that were targeting allies. 

Another victory for the team, several E-6B Mercury customers found themselves in need of fuel cell interconnecting fittings replacements, as the previous vendor for the part went under during the Covid-19 pandemic. The AM team received a call in October, requesting 12 replacements for the fuel cell interconnectors. Within four months, the team was able to produce the parts and get them to the customers. 

Gronda stressed that this was just one example of how the pandemic affected the Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) ability to maintain sustainment capabilities and how the AM team is rising to meet those areas impacted by supply chain gaps created by the pandemic. 

Recognizing the increasing need of AM implementations, Gronda said the Naval Aviation Schoolhouse for Additive Manufacturing was established in February in Danville, Virginia, and will aim to create a pipeline of AM artisans to meet growing AM needs. The Schoolhouse is a collaborative effort with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). 

Another success story related to the team was the ability to repair tire rim assemblies on F/A-18 Hornets. Gronda said pilots often land hard on carrier decks, causing the landing gear wheel hub to oblong and the tire to shake. If the tire shakes, it is taken off and discarded. 

“That tire is wildly expensive,” Gronda said. “There wasn’t an effective way to repair it. We go through 166 of these tires a year and they cost six figures apiece. Eighty percent of those tires are repairable with cold spray technology. It takes me two hours and costs $300. It's a big deal for us. And what that's done is taught us to think different. Stuff that we previously thought was not repairable is repairable now with cool spray and our additive manufacturing repair machines.” 

The final panel of the day began with an overview of the NAVAIR Office of Small Business Programs (OSBP) and how collaborations with modestly sized operations can be mutually beneficial.  

The panel gave step-by-step guidance in how the team guides prospective partners through meeting with OSBP, specifically directing them to the OSBP website, https://www.navair.navy.mil/osbp/

Irma Alexander, deputy director for the OSBP, summed up whole purpose attendees were at Sea-Air-Space this week—market research. 

“The government is here to learn about you. You're here to learn about us, about your competitors, about potential future collaborations,” Alexander said. “But how do you make those decisions? You make them through market research. That's our common purpose. So when you go home and you're tired, think about the motivation you felt this morning, because that's the motivation you need to go do your homework so you can come see us. Market research is the foundation from where you build your business decisions, where you decide how you're going to capture that business, and how you're going to mark it. The good news is we offer a lot of awesome market research resources.” 

The Sea-Air-Space Exposition, taking place at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at the National Harbor, Maryland, is an annual event hosted by the Navy League of the United States. SAS brings together the U.S. defense industrial base, private-sector U.S. companies, key military decision-makers, and international allies and partners for an innovative, educational and professional maritime-based event. 

Sea-Air-Space Expo 2024 attendees listen to a panel at the NAVAIR booth during the first day of the annual expo, hosted by the Navy League of the United States, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at the National Harbor, Maryland. SAS brings together the U.S. defense industrial base, private-sector U.S. companies, key military decision-makers, and international allies and partners for an innovative, educational and professional maritime-based event. 

Sea-Air-Space Expo 2024 visitors browse the NAVAIR booth during the first day of the event.

Members of the NAVAIR Office of Small Business Programs talk to attendees about partnering with NAVAIR at the 2024 Sea-Air-Space Expo.

Members of the NAVAIR Office of Small Business Programs talk to attendees about partnering with NAVAIR at the 2024 Sea-Air-Space Expo.

Theodore Gronda, program manager for the NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing (AM) Team, highlights ways AM has helped solve supply chain issues for the Navy at the Sea-Air-Space Expo 2024.

Theodore Gronda, program manager for the NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing (AM) Team, highlights ways AM has helped solve supply chain issues for the Navy at the Sea-Air-Space Expo 2024.

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