Northrop Grumman Takes Center Stage at Unmanned Technologies Confab

8/11/09Follow @bvbigelow

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innovations in UAVs, but on new applications of UAV technologies to existing missions. For example, Fraser says increasing incidents of piracy off the Horn of Africa have the Pentagon and U.S. Navy looking at ways UAVs can alleviate accumulating demands on U.S. military aircraft and warships.

“Right now, you have a very small number of coalition [warships] chasing a lot of different targets,” Fraser says. So it makes sense to dispatch a high-flyer like the Global Hawk, which can quickly pinpoint all the ships throughout the region and distinguish friends from foes. Fraser says established UAV technology also is being applied in new ways—such as adapting robotic systems to operate the 36-foot RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) used by U.S. Naval Special Warfare forces. Fraser says such robotic surface boats also could be useful in thwarting pirate attacks in the region.

Launch of a Bat

Launch of a Bat

Northrop Grumman also plans to describe a relatively new UAV program. After working for several years with Swift Engineering, a small UAV company in San Clemente, CA, Northrop Grumman recently announced plans to pursue an aggressive flight test program in its development of swarms of smaller UAVs, dubbed “Bats.” Spokeswoman Rene Freeland tells me the company intends to develop a variety of Bat aircraft, which have wingspans ranging from 6.5 feet to more than 33 feet. The unmanned systems are intended to fly in small groups that operate independently, but use networked communications systems to relay information and commands. Last week Northrop Grumman said it had successfully demonstrated the Bat’s communications relay system for an unidentified government customer during flight tests in June at the Naval Air Facility El Centro, CA.

The Bats do not require runways for takeoffs or landings. They can be launched from a rail mounted atop a Humvee and “land” by flying into a recovery net. Different aircraft in a swarm also can be equipped with different instruments, so that some aircraft are specialized for conducting electronic eavesdropping, while others conduct surveillance, or relay data to controllers.

That sounds a lot like the flock of smaller, bird-sized robot planes that could be carried in the belly of a Global Hawk, as Wade reported in November.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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