Innovation Through Compromise: Alfredo Ramirez and the Global Hawk Robot Spy Plane
The way Alfredo Ramirez talks, the Global Hawk does not epitomize an avant-garde aerospace design—even though the robotic spy plane operates at the uppermost boundaries of advanced military aircraft.
The 46-year-old Ramirez is the lead designer for the Global Hawk, a high-altitude UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle. I recently sat down with him to discuss his work on the Global Hawk, a conversation that amounted to his first public conversation about aerospace innovation.
With a bulbous nose and a ‘V’ shaped tail, the Global Hawk looks vaguely like a flying beluga whale. The fuselage is 47.6 feet long—–half the length of a Boeing 737 jetliner—but its wings are thin and unusually long, giving the craft a total wingspan of 130.9 feet.
The Global Hawk is capable of flying 35 hours and operating at 65,000 feet—or approximately 12 to 13 miles above the Earth’s surface. It carries no weapons, but the latest model holds 3,000 pounds of surveillance equipment, including advanced “synthetic aperture” radar, as well as electro-optical and infrared sensors that can provide high-resolution images of an area as big as Alabama.
A typical mission these days calls for the Global Hawk to take off from California’s Beale Air Force Base and fly autonomously to the Mideast. There it can patrol high above the Syrian and Iranian borders with Iraq for nearly 24 hours. Radar and sensor data is transmitted directly from the spy plane via satellite to mission control in California for dissemination to U.S. military commanders in Iraq.
Still, the craft was sexy enough to serve as a background prop in this year’s superhero movie, Iron Man, a cinematic homage to advanced technology and robotics-laden special effects. The design also won the 2000 Collier Trophy, the industry’s top aeronautical achievement, awarded annually by the National Aeronautic Association.
To Ramirez, however, the spy plane with no cockpit and a single jet engine mounted atop its fuselage represents a fairly conventional aircraft design.
“Aircraft design is usually evolutionary, rarely is it revolutionary,” he says. Wing design is a perfect example, he says. “You do iterations. You make them longer, wider, thinner, shorter—and then you run calculations to analyze each design.”
The Global Hawk was developed in the mid-1990s at Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, a San Diego aerospace company that was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 1999. When Ramirez joined Teledyne Ryan’s advanced development group in 1985 as a freshly graduated aerospace engineer from San Diego State University, the company already had extensive experience developing jet-powered drones that had flown reconnaissance missions over Vietnam.
Ramirez says he gained experience working on several tactical reconnaissance drones before the Pentagon established a “fly-off” competition for development of an unmanned high-altitude, long-endurance spy plane.
It was clear that the market for unmanned aircraft was rapidly expanding, Ramirez says. But the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 also meant broader cuts elsewhere in U.S. Defense spending.
“We were basically facing a situation where if we didn’t win the contract, we were out of a job,” Ramirez says. So while Teledyne considered developing a more exotic “flying wing” design, he says the company decided it was more important to “get to first flight with fewer problems and complete flight tests with fewer problems.”
As the team’s “architect,” Ramirez says he had to accommodate requirements set by other engineering groups. The aircraft’s bulbous nose, for example, was dictated by the need to house a 48-inch parabolic dish antenna that maintains constant contact with a military satellite.
In the end, Ramirez says his approach to aircraft design “is the art of the compromise.”
“You can come up with a really exoteric, off-the-wall design,” Ramirez says. “But it doesn’t do you any good if it doesn’t satisfy all the requirements of the other teams. A balanced design inherently means a better chance for success.”