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.

Global Hawk designer Alfredo RamirezWith 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.

The Globalhawk surveillance craftRamirez says the Global Hawk reflects an incremental progression from previous designs, as well as the need to constantly balance the demands of cost, performance, and risk.

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 … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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One response to “Innovation Through Compromise: Alfredo Ramirez and the Global Hawk Robot Spy Plane”

  1. I watched a program on discovery about this aircraft. The pilots are actually fling it from las vegas. They tend to use real
    pilots to fly them