Northrop Unit Pursues New Manned, Unmanned Work

This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology,

Northrop Grumman is turning to some unique teaming arrangements to pursue niche, and possibly productive, markets adjacent to the company's traditional defense work with the Pentagon on large platforms.

In the global financial downturn, the Pentagon and large militaries abroad are unlikely to start major new programs at the pace to which the company has grown accustomed. Thus, two of Northrop's recent business ventures are unusual for a company that is geared to chasing major campaigns. One is aimed specifically at training pilots to launch and recover unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) -- operations where many mishaps occur. Another endeavor is a manned aircraft project to address what company officials see as an unmet need by law-enforcement agencies and developing nations to purchase low-priced surveillance aircraft.

These two undertakings were solidified with partners this spring, just as Northrop Grumman was in full throttle trying to save its premier UAS program, the Global Hawk Block 30, from termination by the U.S. Air Force. As top corporate officials continue to focus on the Global Hawk, a small group within the company is pursuing these smaller ventures.

The Operationally Responsive Systems unit falls under Northrop Grumman Technical Services. A significant part of the operations of its manned aircraft division, called the Aberdeen Integration Center, is located near Baltimore at Martin State Airport, close to the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground. The activities of the unit's unmanned group, called the Unmanned Systems Sustainment Center, are centered primarily in Arizona, although they shift according to where aircraft are deployed.

The Aberdeen Integration Center announced its exclusive partnership with Quest Aircraft to market a surveillance version of the Kodiak single-engine aircraft in March. Design and payload testing are being done on the team's Air Claw demonstrator, a 2009-model of the Kodiak, says Kenny Stidham, the lead test pilot for the project. At $1.7 million per aircraft, the Kodiak falls well below the price of the nearly ubiquitous Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER, a twin-engine aircraft preferred by the Pentagon, or the Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turboprop also used by military customers, says Thomas Kubit, director of business development for the Operationally Responsive Systems unit. The Kodiak received government certification in 2007.

Eighty Kodiaks are in the field worldwide now, most of them in use by non-governmental agencies for humanitarian operations in remote locations in Africa or South America, he says. But the target market encompasses the militaries of developing nations that require some surveillance or intelligence collection as well as law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The technology of the platform and mission systems are not subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Kubit notes.

The per-unit price of the surveillance aircraft is expected to be slightly more than $4 million, the ballpark price of a “green” PC-12, and well under the King Air 350's roughly $8 million list price, says Kubit. The Kodiak-based system “was targeted at bringing an extremely high value and a price point to a portion of the market” that cannot afford today's options, he says.

Air Claw, the demonstrator that first flew in July, features the “baseline” configuration of a FLIR Systems Star Sapphire electro-optical/infrared sensor ball as well as the Hawkeye wide-area surveillance sensor provided by Persistent Surveillance Systems. This company also provides “forensic” software that is able to track objects backward in time, allowing operators to locate the origins of targets or suspects. This sensor and software, now in use by an unnamed customer on the U.S. southern border, were responsible for helping to identify the suspects in 34 murders in that area during six months of operations, says Aaron Boesch, vice president at Persistent Surveillance Systems.

During a short demonstration flight, Boesch showed how the wide-area sensor can capture high-resolution black-and-white imagery of a 4 X 4-mi. area at a frame per second. Each person represents a single pixel, which can be enlarged if needed.

Northrop Grumman also is working on software to allow this Hawkeye sensor to cue the FLIR sensor ball, which can capture more high-fidelity images of targets. That integration is now handled by onboard operators. During the flight, the Kodiak loitered at 85-90 kt. at 9,000 ft. over Martin State Airport and provided persistent surveillance of the area. Company officials stress that the superior low-speed handling of the Kodiak is well-suited to such missions; the platform can also perform short takeoffs and landings on austere air strips.

Interest in small, highly reliable and austere intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collectors has blossomed since 2001, when the Pentagon began rapidly fielding small aircraft with unique ISR packages while hunting Osama bin Laden and top Al Qaeda officials globally. Though the company is flying the baseline mission system, the package can be tailored to include capabilities such as a small synthetic aperture radar, communications intelligence collectors and satellite communications.

Although Northrop has garnered no orders thus far, Kubit says interest is high, especially in the law-enforcement community and some foreign militaries. Deliveries can be made within a year of an order, he adds.

In the meantime, the Operationally Responsive Systems unit is also promoting a unique offering to the U.S. Air Force to train its growing cadre of General Atomics Reaper and Predator UAS pilots to conduct takeoffs and landings. Predators and Reapers suffer a high incident rate during launch and recovery. This is partially due to the latency of satellite communications used for controlling the UAS. Pilots often overcompensate for movements at the controls because of the latency of response to their commands.

The strategy is to sell training services for Predator and Reaper pilots using a Northrop Grumman-owned aircraft, called the Sandstorm, and an Internet-based control system, called the Longshot. Sandstorm -- an actual 15-ft.-wingspan unmanned aircraft designed to mimic the flight characteristics of the Predator and Reaper -- would be controlled remotely by students anywhere with a wideband Internet connection. Northrop's system replicates the controls of a Reaper/Predator pilot, including the feedback of the stick and throttle. Ten Sandstorms have been produced by Montana-based Unmanned Systems Inc., and the team experimented with them long before cementing its partnership in April, says Karl Purdy, manager of new UAS programs at Northrop Grumman.

Purdy estimates that the project will pay for itself by reducing the number of costly Air Force mishaps in the field. “We believe it will save them $75 million per year,” he says. Each Sandstorm costs less than $100,000, a fraction of the Reaper's multimillion-dollar price tag. The aircraft, which has a 15-ft. wingspan and is 8 ft. long, is roughly one-quarter the size of Reaper.

The Sandstorm/Longshot can perform 100 landings for the price of one by a Reaper, he says. Today, pilots train for launch and recovery using actual Predators and Reapers, causing substantial wear and tear on the platforms. Northrop's vision is to sell services to the Air Force to qualify more experienced launch-and-recovery pilots by providing them with more stick time on the Sandstorm/Longshot system than they would receive in current training.

The Internet-based model would allow for training at various locations, and a safety pilot is always present with the Sandstorm to take control of the aircraft in the event of a student error or loss of Internet connection.

Purdy argues that actual hardware is needed to teach launch-and-recovery operations because simulators cannot properly emulate the environment, including latency of controls for remote operations. This latency, or delay, was a contributing factor in many accidents because pilots tend to over-command the stick if they do not see instant feedback on the screen when operating the UAS; thus, they can run off a runway or descend too quickly while landing.

Northrop Grumman officials say the technology is applicable to other UAS fleets because it enables operators to program in the flight characteristics of aircraft such as the Hunter UAS or a bevy of Israeli models sold globally.

Operationally Responsive Systems, which is spearheading these projects, has quietly been supporting classified customers and their manned aircraft for 21 years, says Kubit. It also has worked on mission systems for the Army's Guardrail aircraft and a variety of platforms from business jets to single-engine aircraft. This unit spearheaded Northrop Grumman's failed bid to win the Army's Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System contract. Because of the types of activities it pursues, Operationally Responsive Systems has remained largely shrouded in secrecy.

However, the unit as well as similar divisions of its major competitors -- L-3 Communications, Sierra Nevada and Boeing (with the recent win of the Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System, or Emarss, contract) -- has become more visible partly due to the expansion of potential markets for their respective products.

Credit: Quest

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