B-52 Testing New AgilePod For Advanced Communications

B-52 AgilePod
The AgilePod-26 carried by a U.S. Air Force B-52H during a ground test. (Image credit: Jacobs)

The B-52 is taking part in the demo of the new AgilePod for advanced communications capabilities.

The B-52 Stratofortress is involved in a massive upgrade program that is going to keep it at the forefront of the U.S. strategic bomber fleet through at least 2050. In fact, as explained in detail in the past few months, the iconic nuclear bomber is getting new engines, new radar, new cockpit with new multifunction digital displays, and also new weapons.

And, among all the other things, the B-52J (as the re-engined Stratofortress will be designated), will also be equipped with advanced communication systems made available by the new AgilePod. The latter, is a multi-function pod that can integrate advanced communications capabilities for the B-52 across all domains and enhance data transfer, weapon employment, and provide rapid solutions to emerging threats. And this will be the focus of an imminent demo.

B-52 AgilePod
Airmen from the 307th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron load an AgilePod onto a B 52 Stratofortress, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, Jan. 10, 2023. The AgilePod is a multi-function pod built to integrate advanced communications capabilities for the B-52 across all domains. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nia Jacobs)

“Our goal is to accelerate and integrate disruptive technologies onto the B-52, B-1, and possibly other patrol-class aircraft,” said Nate Dawn, Chief of the AFGSC Strategic Plans and Programs Modernization, Integration, and Technology Transition Branch, in a public statement.

“The AgilePod TENTaCLE (Tactical Edge Network Targeting in a Contested Long-Range Environment) program started as an OSD Rapid Prototyping Program, which allows us to quickly provide these needs to our bombers without the years-long timelines required for a permanent modification to the aircraft,” said Dawn.

The AgilePod®-26 used for the B-52 demo, is a standards-based multi-mission pod designed by Jacobs company to carry Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Over The Horizon (OTH) communications payloads: “The vision of the entire DoD AgilePod enterprise was to create a family of different sized, open-system, standards-based pods, designed around different aircraft classes, to streamline the path to deliver new innovations at the speed of relevance. If a patrol class aircraft, air refueler, military airlift, civilian derivative aircraft or heavy bomber is equipped with external store suspension equipment rated to 1,500 pounds then it is eligible to carriage a missionized AgilePod-26, creating a true ‘Swiss-Army Knife’ in the air. If the next revolution in autonomy, machine learning, long range persistent surveillance or airborne satellite communications protocols can be configured to fit in the AgilePod-26 86” L x 26” W x 28” H midbody bay and/or in the additional 11.7 ft3 of nose and tail volume, and can be kept within the pod’s mass and CG bounds, that future system is one of several possible configurations covered by the SEEK EAGLE limited flight clearance request Jacobs submitted for that class of aircraft.”

The AgilePod-26 (Jacobs)

In other words, the AgilePod allows the quick integration of new technologies on existing certified platforms cutting short the previous integration process that would have required the company that developed a novel airborne data and communications system to engage with the different aircraft procurement and sustainment offices and design a custom packaging and integration solution to host that data/comms node on that specific platform, a process that could take from 5 to 7 years to complete before the first article testing began (on just one aircraft type).

In the future, the modular and open-architecture design of the AgilePods will make it easy to add AI algorithms or LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) payloads to existing aircraft. In the meantime, with this quick and secure technology, the historic B-52 fleet continues to adapt and modernize, as rapidly as possible.

On Feb. 22, 2023, test pilots with the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron completed the initial flight test of the AgilePod on the B-52. Since then, the same unit has carried out additional multiple ground and flight tests to the pod, ensuring operational capability and integration.

Maj. Brent Drabek, one of the B-52 operational test pilot at the 49 TES, remarked, “This capability is a game changer allowing us to rapidly develop, test, and field new technologies on a warfighter-relevant timeline.”

The U.S. Air Force has been working on a family of AgilePods of different sizes for several years now. For instance, in 2018, the program ran by the AFRL Sensors Directorate Blue Guardian team completed inflight testing of a mini-AgilePod on a DC-3, Textron Scorpion, and MQ-9 Reaper.

The AgilePod prototype utilizes an Open Missions System (OMS) modular software architecture and a modular physical configuration of 28 – 60 inches in length that can house a variety of ISR sensor payloads. It may be conceivable that configurations include communication nodes to enable 4th Gen to 5th Gen data sharing for using data as a weapon in the “combat cloud”.

The AgilePod is designed to be flightline configurable while deployed at forward locations to enable maximum support of the warfighter. It is a description that sounds remarkably like the Scorpion, itself utilizing a modular open system architecture (MOSA) and featuring exceptional physical modularity in its payload bay for ISR/Communication payloads.

The Mini-AgilePod, conceptualized here, is designed with an open floor plan and reconfigurable middle sections in various sizes that can be changed depending on specific sensor technologies and missions. The resulting family of AgilePod platforms will be able to host optimized sensors and fit an increased number of aircraft. (U.S. Air Force graphic/David Dixon)
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.