Northrop Grumman Takes Center Stage at Unmanned Technologies Confab

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says its conference and exhibition in Washington D.C. this week is the largest event of its kind, featuring the world’s biggest collection of robotic vehicles for use in the air, land, and sea. Judging by the news conference agenda, however, the four-day convention could almost be called the Northrop Grumman Robot Show.

The Southern California defense contractor, which operates a major unmanned systems business in San Diego, accounts for eight of the 15 news conferences the Virginia-based industry association has scheduled for today and tomorrow.

Gene Fraser

Gene Fraser

The scope of Northrop Grumman’s work in robotic vehicles seems to have grown so big that E.J. “Gene” Fraser, a vice president in the company’s strike and surveillance systems division, is giving an overview of the company’s unmanned systems—in the air, on the ground, and at sea. The company’s major programs include:

—The high-altitude Global Hawk UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, operated above Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. Air Force.

—The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program, a $1.2 billion development effort that seeks to adapt Global Hawk technologies for specialized use by the U.S. Navy in monitoring vast tracts of ocean.

—The Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter under development for the Navy. Northrop Grumman says the Fire Scout completed a series of flight tests aboard the USS McInerney last month as the warship cruised off the coast of Mayport, FL.

—The X-47B unmanned combat air system, a Navy strike aircraft capable of carrier landings and takeoffs. Northrop Grumman is completing final assembly of its first X-47B prototype, with a first flight tentatively set for November.

As unmanned, robotic vehicles become increasingly commonplace, Fraser tells me the pre-conference buzz is focused not so much on breakthrough 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 was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

Trending on Xconomy

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

Comments are closed.