Black Hawk Helicopters Are Launching Drones Mid-Flight

The U.S. Army just tested a new drone, launched mid-flight from a Black Hawk helicopter, with an impressive array of tactical capabilities.
Brad Bergan

The United States Army executed a successful drone launch from a flying Black Hawk helicopter, sending the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — part of a new set of "air launched effects" systems designed to send drones for search-and-destroy sorties of enemy targets — zooming across the sky while it transmitted a live and remotely-viewable video feed, according to a post on the U.S. Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missle Center (CCDC Aviation & Missile Center).


US Army launches drone from Black Hawk helicopter

Dozens of pairs of eyes looked to the sky at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona on March 4 to witness the launch of a UAV from a helicopter and also from a ground vehicle in motion, according to the U.S. Army.

The Black Hawk was retrofitted with external pylons typically used for fuel tanks, missiles, and rockets, but in this case supported a long and slender canister. Once airborne, the Black Hawk launched an Air-Launched, Unmanned, Tube-Integrated System (ALTIUS 600) drone. The ALTIUS UAV ejected from the container, popped out two wings, and flew with guidance from the Black Hawk's command. The drone also sent back a live video feed to the Black Hawk crew.

For other aircraft, this isn't new. But the launch of drones from moving helicopters requires a trick. Once the drone is launched, it's instantly awash in the rapid flow of air from the helicopter's rotors and differential winds from the aircraft's movement relative to the surrounding air. But once the drone's clear, it flies normally.

"When to deploy the wings, when to start the propulsion system on that air launch effect vehicle — getting all of that right, that's the tricky part," said a U.S. Army official to the service's CCDC Aviation & Missile Center.

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U.S. Army ALTIUS 600 Drone
The ALTIUS 600 drone mid-flight. Source: U.S. Army

ALTIUS drone launch, functionality, landing

The ALTIUS UAV is a compact, propeller-driven drone with wings that jut out like a switchblade post-ejection. The drone can also be manually controlled to carry out a series of waypoints and make a lander on reasonably flat surfaces, reports Popular Mechanics.

The U.S. Army is tight-lipped about these drones, which it believes might work for single-attack or reconnaissance helicopter missions — to scout wider areas, wich each helicopter patrolling several drones. The UAVs could also make silent flights over areas too dangerous for crewed helicopters. If the drone is shot down, nobody died.

Notably, the ALTIUS drone is just a stepping stone toward the Army's "air launched effects," or ALE. ALE isn't a missile, nor is it a drone, but it's probably better grasped as a kamikaze drone. ALE systems could be launched from reconnaissance helicopters, engage in scouting activity, and then land autonomously in a secured field where a crew can later retrieve it.

And there's more.

Kamikaze ALE drones

An ALE might even carry a high explosive or charge warhead to attack targets that present themselves along the way. Instead of needing crews to detect, identify, and target an enemy unit before launching a separate weapon (like a homing missile) to destroy a target, ALE could simply home-in to the target and collide, detonating in a fiery explosion.

Bell developed a video showing off their Invictus helicopter proposal. In the video, Invictus launches and commands several ALEs, which fly to their doom in a swarm attack on a Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile battery.

Of course, ALE's aren't likely to steal away the roles of missiles like the Army's Hellfire and next-gen JAGM air-to-surface missiles — propeller-propelled drones can't rush to a target miles ahead like a rocket-propelled missile. However, ALE offers manifold options for flexibility and improved response times, which will help Army commanders target enemy forces quickly using the very drones that identified them.

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