Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New sky spies take flight ...


An experimental spy plane with a wingspan almost the size of a Boeing 747's took to the skies over the Mojave Desert last week in a secret test flight that may herald a new era in modern warfare with robotic planes flying higher, faster and with more firepower.

The massive Global Observer built by AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia is capable of flying for days at a stratosphere-skimming 65,000 feet, out of range of most antiaircraft missiles. The plane is built to survey 280,000 square miles — an area larger than Afghanistan — at a single glance. That would give the Pentagon an "unblinking eye" over the war zone and offer a cheaper and more effective alternative to spy satellites watching from outer space.

The estimated $30-million robotic aircraft is one of three revolutionary drones being tested in coming weeks at Edwards Air Force Base.

Another is the bat-winged X-47B drone built by Northrop Grumman Corp., which could carry laser-guided bombs and be launched from an aircraft carrier. The third is Boeing Co.'s Phantom Ray drone that could slip behind enemy lines to knock out radar installations, clearing the way for fighters and bombers.

These aircraft would represent a major technological advance over the Predator and Reaper drones that the Obama administration has deployed as a central element of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. Unlike most of the current fleet of more than 7,000 drones, the new remotely piloted planes will have jet engines and the ability to evade enemy radar.

"We are looking at the next generation of unmanned systems," said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace expert with Teal Group, a research firm. "As the U.S. looks at potential future conflicts, there needs to be more capable systems."

Finnegan pointed out that propeller-driven Predator and Reaper drones are not fast or stealthy enough to thread through antiaircraft missile batteries. Boeing's Phantom Ray and Northrop's X-47B, by comparison, "can enter contested air space, attack the enemy, and leave without detection on a radar screen," he said.

The Global Observer that was tested last week is designed for reconnaissance and would not carry weapons. But it would greatly extend the surveillance capabilities of drones.

Current spy planes can stay airborne for only about 30 hours. The Global Observer is designed to beat that mark several times over, flying up to a week at a time, and company officials say it may be ready to go into service by year's end.

The drone is designed to do the work that so far has been done by satellites, including relaying communications between military units and spotting missiles as they are launched.

On Thursday, the Global Observer performed its first test demonstrating its ability to use liquid hydrogen as fuel. The drone circled above Edwards at about 3,000 feet above ground level in a four-hour test, according to AeroVironment executives, who plan to announce the achievement Tuesday.

"This is a paradigm shift from capabilities that have come before," said AeroVironment Chairman and Chief Executive Timothy E. Conver. "It's so radically different that it's hard for people to wrap their minds around it."

AeroVironment was founded in 1971 and has built several lightweight aircraft over the years. It is now the largest provider to the U.S. military of small, hand-launched drones that soldiers use to see over hills or around other obstructions.

The Global Observer was built under a Pentagon demonstration program by 150 engineers and technicians at a company production facility in Simi Valley.

If AeroVironment lands a big production contract, it would be a major boost for Southern California's drone industry. That industry employs an estimated 10,000 people, fueled by at least $20 billion in Pentagon spending since 2001, with additional billions from the CIA and Congress.

The Pentagon has increasingly focused on drones because they reduce the risk of American casualties and because they can be operated for a fraction of the cost of piloted aircraft.

That has been a benefit to Southern California's aerospace industry, which has a hand in most of the drones being developed.

Century City-based Northrop is building the X-47B drone at Plant 42 in Palmdale under a $635.8-million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007.

Currently, combat drones are controlled remotely by a human pilot. With the X-47B, which resembles a miniature version of the B-2 stealth bomber, a human pilot designs a flight path and sends it on its way; a computer program would guide it from a ship to target and back.

"The X-47B represents game-changing technology that will allow American forces to project combat power from longer distances without putting humans in harm's way," said Paul Meyer, general manager of Northrop's Advanced Programs & Technology division.

Boeing's Phantom Ray is being built in St. Louis with engineering support from its Phantom Works facilities in Huntington Beach. The company does not have a contract; it is developing the drone at its own expense.

These aircraft may be several years away from service, but defense industry analysts say there is little doubt that they represent the wave of the future.


Return of BlackSwift?

Editor's note: Awhile back when it was reported that BlackSwift was cancelled - I speculated that it really wasn't and that it just retreated into the black world. I hate to say I told you so but ...

By Guy Norris guy_norris@aviationweek.com
Los Angeles

The U.S. Air Force is studying a hypersonic road map which calls for development of ambitious high-speed weapons and a high-speed reusable flight research vehicle (HSRFRV), slightly larger than the Darpa-led Blackswift Mach 6 demonstrator cancelled in 2008.

Both high-speed elements emerged from a government-industry workshop meeting in Washington DC held on Dec. 8-9, and covered development priorities designed to maintain the recent impetus in hypersonics gained with the X-51A WaveRider and to some extent the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle and HTV-2 hypersonic test.

The plan, discussed by Steven Walker, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology and engineering, at the recent AIAA Aerospace Sciences conference in Orlando, Fla., includes parallel development paths towards both hypersonic weapons and the reusable testbed.

The weapons path would be relatively fast-track, with development of a demonstrator over five years and first flight by October 2016. Three major options for the demonstrator include an “X-51-like” vehicle that would, like the WaveRider, be air-launched from a B-52. A second option would cover development of a “tactically-compliant” high-speed version that could be carried by internally-carried by the Northrop Grumman B-2, and externally by the Lockheed Martin F-35. A third option, also involving a B-2/F-35 capable launch, would be an all-new vehicle configuration.

The more advanced element of the road map is Walker’s call for a re-usable demonstrator incorporating a turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC), as well as the ability to take-off and land on a runway. As with the Blackswift project, the HSRFRV’s TBCC will combine a high-Mach turbojet with a dual-mode ramjet/scramjet, the two sharing a common inlet and nozzle. Unlike Blackswift’s TBCC, however, which was designed to power the demonstrator from takeoff to a very short period of five-minutes at Mach 6 cruise and back, the HSRFRV appears to be aimed at more ambitious goals.

Walker says the proposed vehicle will have the capability for up to 15 minutes at Mach 4 plus. In addition it will have limited duration at higher Mach numbers. Mindful of the pitfalls that have swallowed up so many previous hypersonic goals, not the least of them the X-30 National Aerospace Plane (NASP), the plan calls for a steady development schedule towards a first flight in October 2021. Walker says “the team feels if the money is available we can get there”.

Speaking to Aviation Week, Air Force Research Laboratory X-51A program manager Charles Brink says “the Air Force, under Steve’s leadership, has been doing a good job of herding all the cats, and coming up with a more streamlined, coherent high-speed vehicle roadmap.” The completion of the X-51A, he says, will provide data that “plays into the rules and tools development” for use in the following weapons and platforms developments. Brink adds that the Air force is aiming to conduct the second attempted flight of the X-51A in late March, having abandoned a potential window this month owing to unavailability of a B-52 launch aircraft.


J-20 Chengdu Chicken proves it isn't a flightless bird!

High Speed Taxi:



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