Northrop Grumman Planning First UAV-to-UAV Aerial Refueling

7/1/10Follow @bvbigelow

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San Diego under the agency’s Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program. The first flight was on Feb. 28, 1998. Conceived as the robotic equivalent of Lockheed’s U-2 spy plane, the current Global Hawk design is powered by a single jet engine, and was designed with a nearly 131-foot wingspan to intelligence-gathering surveillance missions for up to 40 hours. Images and data are relayed by satellite.

But not everyone at the Pentagon is a Global Hawk fan. Earlier this week, Ashton Carter, the Defense Department’s undersecretary of acquisition technology and logistics, told reporters the Global Hawk is “on a path to be non-affordable.” The program has been plagued with cost overruns, and while the Global Hawk officially costs about $35 million for each aircraft, it’s more like $123 million apiece when development costs are added to the mix.

The refueling mission will be flown in reverse order, Gamache says, with the tanker UAV following behind the UAV that needs refueling. “We want the aircraft with the smarts and the maneuvering capabilities in the rear,” Gamache says. The development schedule calls for the first UAV-UAV refueling flight sometime during the first half of 2012.

The core innovation requires the integration of a GPS navigation system (developed by Sierra Nevada of Sparks, NV) and optical tracking system with the computerized mission management system that Northrop Grumman developed to operate the flight controls—and “achieving the precision required to maneuver the aircraft,” Gamache says. “Really, it’s an integration of several technologies to achieve that precision tolerance.”

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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