Northrop Grumman sees the future of drones now

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

A global press release from Northrop Grumman headquarters in the middle of the morning announced that the company had successfully demonstrated a data link to connect aircraft in highly contested airspace for long-range command and control via a network of open architecture.

The statement called the experience a critical step in the evolution of a distributed, multi-domain combat management command and control architecture that maintains decision superiority for the U.S. military and its allies.

The Firebird, Model 355, performs a test mission. (Photograph by Northrop Grumman)

“Northrop Grumman technologies, based on advanced electronics of small size, weight and power, enable integrated and secure communications in all areas supporting the Department of Defense JADC2 strategy,” said Tom Pieronek, Director of Technology and Vice President, Research and Technology. He said: “Northrop Grumman remains committed to providing capabilities that maintain a strategic advantage for the United States and its allies in all fields and against all adversaries.”

The flight demonstration is the first integration of a new mission-specific military transceiver, multi-level safety data switches and an open architecture wide area network, using commercial technology in the observation loop , guidance, decision and action – the chain of decision making. for threat engagements.

Calling it a key step towards harnessing the power of a network in areas critical for national security missions, the company said the flight demonstration linked the Scaled Composites Proteus, a high-altitude research aircraft. and long-endurance, with a Firebird, an unmanned aircraft vehicle with the ability to be flown by a crew, thanks to an advanced line-of-sight data link with low probability of interception / low probability of detection characteristics which include anti-jamming properties.

The aircraft linked up and performed a simulated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission in which battlefield commanders obtain relevant planning information from decoded communications, intercepting plans, strategies and resources connected to a cloud-based 5G network test bed via a new prototype multi-level safety switch.

In short, the Northrop Grumman test demonstrated that the technology allows unmanned aircraft to gather information about the enemy by observing their behavior and tracking movement, allowing commanders to stay three steps ahead of the enemy. , while easily and securely sharing critical data across air, land, sea and space to accelerate decision times and maintain strategic advantage in times of data-driven conflict.

Ultimately, however, this real-time intelligence gathering and secure transmission software depends on the combination of rugged and resilient flight hardware to penetrate a full range of environments, from mild to fiercely hostile. And therein lies the challenge of having enough aircraft of the right type to affordably meet evolving mission demands. The logical and now technologically feasible and affordable solution, NG executives point out, is to produce aircraft that have the flexibility to be quickly transformed to meet necessary mission parameters, and the additional ability to be vehicles. piloted as an option.

And yes, they have those capabilities in existing cells that can be converted from crew to remote pilot or standalone operation and back in hours and minutes or no more than a day or two, and by a pair. technicians using simple hand tools. Such planes already exist at Northrop Grumman. As reporters descended from vans onto the ramp outside a hangar at Site 7, they were greeted by a low-level flyover of an N-401 built entirely of composite – piloted, in this case. Inside the hangar was a twin brother whose human element had been removed, extending both its range and payload.

The integrated assembly line at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, California. (Photograph by Northrop Grumman)

The show-and-tell segment was presented to the world by the friendly and mutually beneficial backyard of Northrop Grumman and the acquisition of the legendary Scaled Composites from Mojave Air and Space Port.

In early 2009, Northrop CEO Rick Crooks pitched the idea of ​​building an optional pilot plane at Scaled. Calling it the Model 355, Scaled delivered Firebird, a composite creation that made its maiden flight 12 months later and demonstrated its abilities to collect information from multiple sources in an incredibly underhand manner eight months later. . Firebird was unveiled in public on May 9, 2011.

So began a business acquisition in 2007 that was more like courtship, marriage and happy family life, until now, in which Northrop Grumman, already a significant shareholder, acquired Scaled Composites, but with provisions to protect strategies, facilities and organizational culture. that has made Scaled Composites a world-renowned productivity leader and a magnet for some of the brightest aerospace designers and engineers. Founder Burt Rutan remained a senior director of Scaled until his retirement in 2011. Long-time senior executive Cory Bird became president of Scaled in April 2019.

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


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