When you look to the sky and see a jet airplane overhead, there is a good chance GE jet engines power that plane.

In 20 years, when you see an unmanned aerial vehicle in the skies, it may be powered by a different GE technology—electrical power.

It is the electrical power and distribution technology that GE is researching and applying on several types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

GE’s history in electrical power

GE’s presence in the electrical power and distribution business took a stronghold when it acquired Smiths Aerospace in 2007.

The acquisition broadened GE Aviation’s offerings for customers by adding power generation, conversion, distribution and complete power system integration.

In 2010, GE Aviation announced the creation of an Electrical Power Integrated Systems Research and Development Center – the EPISCENTER – in Dayton, Ohio.

The EPISCENTER built on the electrical power and distribution foundation that the acquisition of Smiths Aerospace brought on in 2007.

“GE’s EPISCENTER is focused on advanced energy management involving electric power systems research and development including electric power generation, control, distribution & management, conversion and energy storage equipment,” said Vic Bonneau, president of Electric Power for GE Aviation. “This center of excellence is used to design optimized systems that deliver electric power efficiently and robustly for our military and commercial customers.”

A Northrop Grumman X-47B. Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

A Northrop Grumman X-47B. Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

UAVs in the military

One UAV area where GE Aviation is already soaring is the military.

Currently, GE is the largest non-partner equipment supplier for the X-47B Navy Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program with Northrop Grumman.

GE provides key systems such as computing resources, electrical power systems, and structure and landing gear systems that are critical to the operational success of the X-47B.

The landing gear for the X-47B is uniquely designed to endure the challenges and rigors of catapult take-offs and arrested landings at sea on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

GE also supplies the primary flight control actuation and electrical power generation and conversion systems to the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 family of UAVs including the Global Hawk and others.

A Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

A Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

GE’s investments

GE’s success in the military UAV segment is due to unique technologies and materials.

Take silicon carbide for example—the Steph Curry of the materials world; it’s small but mighty.

Silicon carbide can withstand higher temperatures in more rugged environments and offers other performance advantages that result in much higher power densities (the amount of power per unit volume) and more reliability than other material counterparts.

While silicon carbide may be developed throughout the industry, GE’s Global Research Center is an established leader, developing the material for more than 10 years and creating unique capabilities for GE’s industrial businesses, including GE Aviation.

“GE’s Global Research Center has been working on silicon carbide technology for a long time and while the material isn’t unique to GE, the way we apply it on our products gives us a performance advantage over competitors,” says John Robertson, executive product manager at GE Aviation.

Silicon carbide (SiC) wafer coating.

Silicon carbide (SiC) wafer coating.

UAV technology demand is changing

UAVs need to be larger, lighter and faster than ever. They need to generate more power and have the capabilities to distribute it quicker, while maintaining efficiency.

GE is approaching this demand head-on by developing UAV-specific technologies that directly address electrical power generation and demand.

The electrical accumulator unit – or EAU – is a technology that uses battery power in an active manner. The EAU on an aircraft works like a battery on a hybrid car, extracting extra energy that is generated during normal operation of an aircraft and storing it until it is needed for use during times of peak performance.

The EAU also helps manage power during times of current surge by storing the energy in the battery for use at a later time.

Also in development at GE are variable speed constant frequency (VSCF) generators which take variable frequency and turn it into constant frequency power. The VSCF generators can be utilized on both civil and military platforms and provide all of the electrical power for the aircraft.

Currently, GE supplies electrical power systems to several military aircraft, including the Boeing F/A-18, which contains a VSCF generator, the Northrop Grumman X-47B, which contains a high voltage DC generator and the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, which contains a variable frequency generator.


Silicon carbide (SiC) wafer coating.

Preparing for the future

What does the future hold for UAVs? Is it strictly in the military space or is there an opportunity in the commercial space as well?

“We’ve made a lot of investments in technologies for manned aircraft, and subsequently, we’ve found ways to leverage those technologies for use on UAVs,” says John Robertson. “The UAV industry is opening up a new space for aircraft design and technology, and GE is well positioned to take advantage because of the investments we’ve made and the success we’ve had in developing advanced aircraft level solutions.”

The UAV industry may have an undefined future. But for GE, a company with a rich history of innovations, an undefined future means plenty of untapped opportunities.