Air Force Fielding New Sensors to High-Altitude Drone


Even as it begins developing the future B-21 stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force, Northrop Grumman Corp. is busy outfitting new sensors to the RQ-4 high-altitude drone to meet the service's rising demand for surveillance missions.

The Falls Church, Virginia-based company already this year flew a new sensor onboard the Global Hawk -- and plans to test and field two more technologies in coming months, according to Mick Jaggers, vice president and program manager for Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system programs.

Through a cooperative research and development agreement with the Air Force, Northrop flew a Global Hawk with the latest Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System sensor, or the SYERS-2, made by UTC Aerospace Systems, Jaggers recently told

The sensor is also fitted on the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane and provides multi-spectral imaging of targets to extreme ranges; the active-duty Global Hawk has since been returned to the Air Force "since that demo was successful," Jaggers said.

Next up are two other systems called the Optical Bar Camera, or OBC, and the MS-177 Multi-Spectral Sensor System, he said.

Photos by Oriana Pawlyk at the annual Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Conference 2016.

Photos by Oriana Pawlyk at the annual Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Conference 2016.

Northrop is "in the process" of a similar test for the OBC, and in October plans to do a flight test of the technology, Jaggers said. The company plans to test the wet-film, high-resolution camera for panoramic imaging for six weeks before transferring the aircraft back to the service, he said.

Then in December, Northrop and Air Force officials will test the MS-177 Multi-Spectral Sensor System, a multi-spectral intelligence sensor. They'll evaluate the next-generation sensor for six months, with the goal of initial operational capability in 2017. UTC, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, also makes the OBC and MS-177.

The long-range MS-177 will bring more agility to the camera, with various flexible modes of operation, such as zeroing in on one spot or expanding to a wide search area day or night, over land or sea, according to UTC.

The Air Force in cooperation with Northrop plans to acquire four more 10-band MS-177s. The program has already purchased two seven-spectrum band and two 10-bands, which have “three more bands of color," Jaggers said.

Each of the three sensors Northrop has or plans to integrate can be switched out by airmen in the aircraft's payload adapter, fitted underneath the plane.

"We will be the first platform flying the latest ISR sensor on behalf of the United States Air Force," Jaggers said. "From a capability standpoint, we're here. And we're not done making airplanes."

The Air Force has 33 Global Hawks in its inventory, including a test aircraft. The drone, first tested in 1995, took its first flight in 1998. According to the service, the aircraft has been deployed operationally to support overseas contingency operations since 2001.

The majority of the Global Hawk fleet will be available for missions "for years to come," Jaggers said. "And this year we will deliver one more brand-new plane to the Air Force, and next year two more."

In fiscal 2015, the drone flew more hours in than the service's fleet of high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft flew just two years prior. In 2014, an RQ-4 Block 40 flew a "34.3 hour flight, setting the endurance record for longest unrefueled flight by a U.S. Air Force aircraft," according to the service.

Those long flights can add up.

"If you look at our cost per flying hour, we went from $33,000 an hour down to $14,000," Jaggers said. "So every hour you're flying us, you save roughly $20,000.”

By comparison, that 34.3-hour, singular sortie would still have cost more than $480,000.

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