Northrop Grumman envisions UAV future now

by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News
PALMDALE, Calif.—Twenty-eight years after introducing Global Hawk to the world, executives of Northrop Grumman and its wholly-owned Scaled Composites design and fabrication partner invited a group of aviation writers to its Air Force Plant 42 production center, for a preview of some next big things in the world of crewed and uncrewed air warfare.

A global media release from Northrop Grumman headquarters at mid-morning announced that the company successfully demonstrated a data link for connecting aircraft in highly contested airspace for long-range command and control through an open architecture network.

The statement termed the experiment as a critical milestone in the evolution of a distributed multi-domain battle management command and control architecture that maintains decision superiority for the U.S. military and allies.

The Firebird, Model 355, flies a test mission. (Northrop Grumman photograph)

“Northrop Grumman technologies, built on advanced low size, weight and power electronics, enable integrated and secure communications across domains supporting the Department of Defense’s JADC2 strategy,” said Tom Pieronek, chief technology officer and vice president, research and technology. He said, “Northrop Grumman remains committed to delivering capabilities that maintain strategic advantage for the U.S. and its allies across all domains and against all adversaries.”

The flight demonstration is the first integration of a new mission-specific military transceiver, multi-level security data switches, and open architecture wide-area networking, utilizing commercial technology into the observe, orient, decide and act loop – the decision-making chain for threat engagements.

Terming it a key step toward harnessing the power of a network into critical domains for national security missions, the company said the flight demonstration linked the Scaled Composites Proteus, a High-Altitude, Long-Endurance research aircraft, with a Firebird, an unmanned air vehicle with the capability to be flown manned, through an advanced line-of-sight data link with low probability of intercept/low probability of detection characteristics that includes anti-jam properties.

The aircraft established a link and performed a simulated Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Mission in which battlefield commanders get relevant planning information from decoded communications, intercepting plans, strategies and resources connected back to a cloud-based 5G network testbed through a novel prototype multi-level security switch.

In short, the Northrop Grumman test demonstrated that the technology allows uncrewed aircraft to gather information regarding the enemy by observing their behavior and tracking movements, thereby allowing commanders to stay three steps ahead of the enemy, while easily and securely sharing mission-critical data across air, land, sea and space to speed up decision timelines and maintain a strategic advantage in an age of data-driven conflict.

Ultimately, however, that real-time intelligence-gathering and secure transmission software depends on having the mix of robust and survivable flying hardware to penetrate a full range of environments, from benign to fiercely hostile. And therein lies the challenge of having enough of the right kind of aircraft to affordably meet constantly changing mission demands. The logical and now technologically feasible and affordable solution, NG executives point out, is producing aircraft that have the flexibility to be quickly transformed to meet the necessary mission parameters, and the additional capability to be optionally piloted vehicles.

And yes, they do have those capabilities in existing airframes that can be converted from crewed to remotely piloted or autonomously operated and back again in hours and minutes or no more than a day or two, and by a pair of technicians using simple hand tools. Such planes already exist at Northrop Grumman. As reporters dismounted the vans on the ramp outside a Site 7 hangar, they were greeted with a low-level fly-by of an all-composites-built N-401 — piloted, in this case. Inside the hangar was a twin sibling with the human element removed, extending both its range and payload.

The Integrated Assembly Line at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., facility. (Northrop Grumman photograph)

The show-and-tell segment was brought to the world by Northrop Grumman’s friendly and mutually beneficial courtship and acquisition of Mojave Air and Space Port’s legendary Scaled Composites.

In early 2009 Northrop executive Rick Crooks floated the idea of building a pilot-optional airplane to Scaled. Calling it Model 355, Scaled delivered Firebird, a composites creation that made its first flight 12 months later and demonstrating its capabilities to collect intelligence from multiple sources in incredibly sneaky fashion just eight months later. Firebird was unveiled in public on May 9, 2011.

Thus began a 2007 corporate acquisition that more closely resembled a courtship, wedding and a happily, so far, family life in which Northrop Grumman, already a major shareholder, acquired Scaled Composites outright, but with provisions to protect the strategies, facilities and organizational culture that made Scaled Composites a leader in productivity, world famous and a magnet for some of the most brilliant aerospace designers and engineers. Founder Burt Rutan remained as senior manager for Scaled until he retired in 2011. Long time senior executive Cory Bird became president of Scaled in April 2019.

Bird says the people at Scaled also celebrate the emotional paycheck that comes when they make impossible things possible.

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