The Navy’s Atlantic Test Ranges (ATR) at NAS Patuxent River is scheduled to receive a ground control station (GCS) for testing with the MQ-25 Stingray early next year.

Besides ATR, several other Pax River locations will house the new GCS, known as the MD-5D, according to Chris Hardman, ATR project facilitator. They are the MQ-25 hangar, the System Test and Integration Laboratory (STIL) and two mobile test transportable (TT) units. ATR is also installing supporting equipment for the GCSs, including mission control room workstations, video routing, voice communications interfaces and test networks.

There are three variants of the MD-5 for different types of installations, Hardman said. “The MD-5C is installed on ships, the MD-5D at shore facilities, and the MD-5E in mobile units. An easy way to remember them is the MD-5C goes to sea, MD-5D is on dirt, and the MD-5E is embarkable.”

The first MD-5D GCS at Pax has already been installed in the STIL as a software testbed, he said. “It will not be used for flight. All versions of software will first be tested at the STIL before being promoted.”

The TT units with MD-5E’s will be transported to MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois. ATR is also beefing up a mobile instrumented telemetry system (MITS) with its Real-time Telemetry Processing System (RTPS) for the upcoming testing at MidAmerica.

“The MITS will interface with the mobile TTs that will control the aircraft during the testing,” he said.

A Boeing-owned version of the MQ-25, the T1, has been undergoing flight tests at MidAmerica with a Boeing controller since September 2019. Although the aircraft and controller in the current flight tests belong to Boeing, the MQ-25 Integrated Test Team (ITT), ATR, and the Navy “had a lot to do with the planning and buildup for the flight,” Hardman said.

“The ITT was at MidAmerica, and our RTPS was receiving a lot of the aircraft data and video after the flight for processing here at ATR,” he said. “We’ve been working hard to install equipment at MidAmerica that networks the data and video back to ATR in real time. The ITT is now able to monitor flights at MidAmerica or remotely here at ATR.”

MD-5D controllers are more complex than the name indicates, and their composition varies. The GCS for ATR is setup to provide control from two different rooms, A and B, and each room includes two cockpits, known as air vehicle operator (AVO) workstations. The MD-5D in the MQ-25 hangar will incorporate a similar configuration in rooms C and D, each with two AVO consoles. Each TT will have an MD-5E with just two AVO workstations.

The operators at ATR and the MQ-25 hangar GCSs communicate with the aircraft and local facilities involved in a test via signals sent through buried fiber-optic lines to radio-frequency shelters installed on pad sites. The ATR pad site is at the foot of tower B, one of the two tall antenna towers across the street from B2118. The hangar’s shelter and pad site is under construction.

ATR’s shelter broadcasts the signals it receives through four VHF/UHF voice radio antennas and four omnidirectional command and control (C2) data antennas on the tower.

“Pilots at the workstations communicate through the voice antennas with local facilities involved with the test such as ground support and air traffic control,” Hardman said. “The data antennas are used to control the air vehicle while it is within line of sight.”

When the aircraft is beyond line of sight, two mobile user objective system antennas transmit the control signals via satellite.

The hangar pad site under construction has a more extensive antenna array. A tower at the site supports two voice antennas and four omnidirectional C2 antennas to control the aircraft.

“There are multiple frequencies needed for voice on each flight, and multiple C2s may be needed for multiple air vehicles and back-up frequencies,” he said.

A more powerful command data link (CDL) directional antenna controls the unmanned air vehicle (UAV) at greater distances. “The CDL has a higher gain and can process and follow the UAV’s position,” he said. “That means we don’t need to slave the CDL to a separate tracking radar. It can slave to itself.”

A wideband satellite terminal antenna at the hangar site interfaces with both commercial and military networks. And two telemetry acquisition system antennas acquire signals for an ATR real-time telemetry processing system also located at the hangar site.

The first three Navy aircraft to be tested at MidAmerica will be engineering development models (EDM) 1, 2 and 3. One of the TTs will control the first EDM flight at MidAmerica with the second TT serving as backup. The second TT will then be transported to NAWCAD Lakehurst for further MQ-25 testing there.

A second series of three different MQ-25 system demonstration test article (SDTA) aircraft will follow the EDMs in 2023. SDTA work will involve cyber, electromagnetic effects, climate chamber, mission systems, mission scenario development and operational testing.

“Construction design is underway on an MQ-25 hangar at Point Mugu, and another hangar is being repurposed in Norfolk for the fleet,” Hardman said. “They’re being funded over the next few years with construction to follow. This is all to prepare the fleet for the future of naval UAVs.”

Initial operational capability of the first four Stingrays in the carrier air wing is set for 2025. The aircraft will be integrated into the wing alongside the E-2 and C-2 squadrons.