Tube Launched UAS


As small UAS (drones) become more capable and ubiquitous there will be a focus on maturing and developing the means of storage, carriage and deployment. Moving on from Peli cases and foam cutouts, these systems will be increasingly treated as a round of ammunition or missile; stored on shelves, moved on pallets, and attached to all manner of crewed and uncrewed vehicles, ships, helicopters and aircraft.

Inevitably, this leads to having them in tubes (or canisters).

Tube launching does add some complexity due to the requirement to incorporate a wing folding mechanism and wing form/span will be limited by the interior dimensions of the tube. This will limit the performance of the UAS. These limitations mean that an extreme altitude long endurance design is unlikely to be possible, but for the most common battlefield applications, achievable.

The most obvious constraining dimension is that of a NATO standard sonobuoy.

This would not only allow them to be deployed by maritime patrol aircraft such as the RAF’s new P-8s. Industry treats this as a ‘standard dimension’.

There are a number of sonobuoy dimensions, A to G.

They can be gravity or pneumatically launched, singly or in a rotary magazine, and the most common are A,F and G. Image below shows an A size sonobuoy being loaded into a rotary launcher onboard a US Navy P-8A

And below, being loaded onto the aircraft.

RAF LOSSIEMOUTH, Scotland (Dec. 14, 2020) Aircrew Survival Equipmentman 3rd Class Alyssa Kozak, left, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Austin Phillips, center, and Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Siane Nash assigned to the "Grey Knights" of Patrol Squadron (VP) 46 load sonobuoys onto a P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft, Dec. 14, 2020. VP-46 is currently forward deployed to the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations and is assigned to Commander, Task Force 67, responsible for tactical control of deployed maritime patrol and reconnaissance squadrons throughout Europe and Africa. U.S. Sixth Fleet, headquartered in Naples, Italy, conducts a full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied and interagency partners, in order to advance U.S. national security interests and stability in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Austin Ingram)

For carriage on large uncrewed aircraft like the General Atomics Predator (Protector), Harris has developed a pod-based sonobuoy launcher.

Exploiting sonobuoy launch systems for UAS is not a new idea, in 2004, the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) released a requirement for an expendable sonobuoy dispenser launched UAV for P-3C Orion aircraft, to be used for hurricane research. The result of this was the Advanced Ceramics Research Coyote, now more commonly known as the Raytheon Coyote.


The Block 2 iteration uses a larger jet engine powered design but the Block 3 uses the same folding wing tube-launched configuration as the original. Lockheed Martin also make a training target that is sonobuoy dispenser launched, the snappily titled MK 39 Expendable Mobile ASW Training Target and Field Programmability System.

In the UK, Ultra Electronics design and manufactures sonobuoys for the Royal Navy (and others), and have shown concepts for pod launched sonobuoys.

Given the amount of research effort into making launch systems for sonobuoy 123.9mm diameter sensors and UAS, would it make sense to exploit this in the land domain?

This will allow warheads, electronics and guidance systems developed for 120mm mortars, artillery and tank ammunition to be re-used without expensive re-engineering. Where this is a problem is warhead diameter, NLAW and Javelin, for example, exceed 123.9mm, therefore negating any re-use opportunities and reducing effectiveness (given shaped charge diameter has a direct relationship to penetration)

Another option is the Submerged Signal Ejector (SSE) used for pyrotechnics, electronic and countermeasures payloads on submarines. These use either 76mm or 100mm payloads.

Read more about these from the Denis Farranti Group in Wales.

As far back as 2011, the National Technical University of Ukraine (NTUU KPI) and the State Kyiv Design Bureau Luch developed an ATGW tube-launched UAS called SOKIL-2.

SOKIL 2 had a design range of 20km and endurance of 1.5 to 2 hours.

At 160mm in diameter, too large for a Class A/G Sonobuoy launch tube.

Area-I have opted for the 150mm for their Altius 600 that has been demonstrated launching from a number of ground vehicles and aircraft (and will also be doing the hurricane hunting stuff as well). Lockheed Martin has also taken an Altius 600 and added a High Power Microwave (HPM) for use in the counter-UAS role, called MORFIUS.

The more famous Switchblade 300 and 600 go for 3 inches (75mm) and 6 inches (150mm) in diameter respectively.

Closer to home, the Lockheed Martin Outrider has been around for a few years and was designed for submarine, helicopter and vehicle launch using the Submerged Signal Ejector diameter (100mm) as the constraining dimension.

It has a couple of hours of endurance and a range of up to 20km. It is also ITAR free, totally homegrown in the UK. Outrider only carries a sensor payload, nothing explosive.

Outrider is a brilliant concept, and the fact that it is UK developed is even better.

Lockheed Martin UK is still developing the concept, using Outrider as the base air vehicle for a rocket deployed system, the Dispensing Rocket Payload Demonstrator.

There are three variants, an armed version, an electronic decoy, and finally, a plain old ISTAR version.

Design choices on a diameter are interesting, lean towards sonobuoys at 123.9mm, go smaller at 75mm (Switchblade 300) or larger at 150mm (Switchblade 600, Altius 600 etc.)?

Or stick with Outrider at 100mm?

To show how this might work with an MLRS rocket at 226mm diameter, the diagram below shows 75mm, 100mm (Outrider and SSE), 124mm (Sonobuoy) and 150mm.

Outrider seems to sit in the sweet spot for MLRS rocket carriage whilst still being compatible with sonobuoy launchers with a suitable adapter casing.

Using a tube launcher approach allows small disposable UAS to be treated as a munition, and this is a Good ThingTM

We should get behind Outrider, it makes all kinds of tri-service sense.

A single multi-payload device that can be launched from a Boxer, a Merlin, an Astute, a GMLRS rocket, a Poseidon, an Apache, a Jackal or Protector would be kind of a big deal, with enormous potential.

Another constraining dimension worthy of consideration is the length of the tube or canister, especially when considering palletisation.

The images below show the MIL-STD 3028 JMIC

The maximum internal height is 842mm, allowing extremely efficient vertical packing. This might also open the possibility of using the JMIC as a Vertical Launch System (VLS), a quick calculation shows a single JMIC would be able to house forty-eight vertical 100mm diameter tubes with a generous allowance for housing and spacing.

Although the length of Outrider does not seem to be published anywhere, expect it will be less than this.

i.e., a self contained swarm launcher

Finally, let me leave you with this video and link

We have great engineers in the UK, let’s not be buying from elsewhere.


Brite Cloud is 55mm


Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x