Military Embedded Systems

NAVAIR stresses uncrewed systems, additive manufacturing, and small business at Sea-Air-Space 2024


April 10, 2024

Lisa Daigle

Assistant Managing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford, executive officer of PEO(U&W)/NAVAIR photo

SEA-AIR-SPACE 2024--NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. The U.S. Navy's Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) started off the 2024 Sea-Air-Space Expo by holding panel discussions on manned/unmanned and weapons-systems advancements, additive-manufacturing success stories, and opportunities for small businesses to collaborate with NAVAIR to aid the warfighter. 

Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford led the first panel; Tedford is executive officer of the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons [PEO(U&W)], which includes 12 programs offices that design, build, deliver, and sustain the Navy's uncrewed aircraft, weapons, targets, aircrew systems, and common support equipment.

Tedford noted that since 2023, 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 asserted. “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.”  

Adm. Tedford also stated that artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy of UAS is an ongoing development, 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 that the Air Force is leading the way with AI autonomy and the Navy is following, with both branches agreeing that interoperability and commonality across all platforms is necessary. 

Theodore Gronda, program manager for the NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing (AM) Team, started off his panel discussion by noting 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 detailed the three tiers of AM used by NAVAIR: 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, Gronda said, NAVAIR has 96 AM devices deployed to 33 sites, including deployed aircraft carriers.  

The NAVAIR small-business collaboration panel started off with an overview of the NAVAIR Office of Small Business Programs (OSBP) and how both the Navy and the small businesses can mutually benefit from collaborations. The panel offered listeners detailed guidance on how the team brings prospective partners through meeting with OSBP, specifically directing them to the OSBP website,

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

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