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Northrop Grumman has begun flight testing of the MS-177 sensor payload with a successful inaugural flight on an RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance autonomous aircraft system.

New sensor payload helps Global Hawk stay relevant

Northrop Grumman completed its successful inaugural flight test of the UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS) MS-177 sensor payload on an RQ-4 Global Hawk on March 1, 2017. The flight tests mark the first time the sensor has been flown on a high-altitude long-range autonomous aircraft. The MS-177 next-generation multispectral sensor provides the capability to "find" targets using broad area search and different sensing technologies, and to also fix, track, and assess targets through its modernized optronics and multiple sensing modalities. The MS-177 also has a field of view 20° wider than the currently equipped sensor, thanks to a gimbaled rotational mount.

“The MS-177 is the new benchmark in imaging intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and its integration into the Global Hawk platform expands the mission capability we can provide,” said Mick Jaggers, Vice President and Program Manager of Northrop’s Global Hawk program.

MS-177 testing is expected to continue through the first half of 2017. The successful flight test at Northrop's Palmdale, CA, facility follows the demonstration of two Lockheed Martin U-2 sensors previously unavailable on the Global Hawk: the Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS-2) intelligence gathering sensor in February 2016 and recently completed flight tests of the Optical Bar Camera (OBC). Those demonstrations were conducted with an RQ-4 modified with Northrop's Universal Payload Adaptor (UPA).

While the MS-177 was first flown on a Northrop E-8C Joint Surviellance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) in 2011, and then on General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ Predator C Avenger demonstrator in 2016, the RQ-4 is slated to become the first aircraft to carry to the sensor operationally. The MS-177 will likely replace the previously tested SYERS-2 system.

“This successful flight is an aggressive effort to demonstrate Global Hawk’s versatility and effectiveness in carrying a variety of sensor payloads and support establishing OMS [open mission systems] compliancy,” said Jaggers. "This is going to open up an entire world for the operators of Global Hawk.”

The unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk, now on its Block 40 iteration, has a service ceiling of 60,000 ft, can fly at high altitudes for greater than 30 hours, and has a range of approximately 14,000 mi.

It is designed to gather near-real-time, high-resolution imagery of large areas of land—up to 40,000 mi² per day, in all types of weather—day or night. In active operation with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) since 2001, Global Hawk has amassed more than 200,000 flight hours with missions flown in support of military and humanitarian operations

In 2015, the USAF planned to retire the U-2 in favor of the RQ-4 and its lower of operating costs. This would have marked the first time that an unmanned aircraft completely replaced a manned aircraft. However, due to sequestration complications, it was decided that the U-2 would continue to fly through 2018.

The RQ-4’s ability to fill the role of the U-2 hinges on further developing the platform. Operating more capable sensors more reliably helps to make it a more cost-effective alternative to manned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. One of the major issues concerning the USAF unmanned fleet is that the RQ-4, MQ-9, and RQ-7 aircraft cannot fly through inclement weather due to a lack of in-flight de-icing equipment. However, multiple organizations are looking to refit U.S. unmanned aircraft with various de-icing measures, including Battelle.

Battelle’s self-developed solution involves coating leading wing surfaces with a special, suspended carbon nanotube paint layer in strategic locations. The “Heatcoat” solution possesses enhanced thermal conductivity, includes no moving parts, and is ultra-lightweight; key characteristics to consider for the unmanned platforms that are operated with zero excess power and weight.

Beyond closing in on the U-2’s capabilities, Northrop’s continued development of its unmanned platforms also increases the appeal of the RQ-4 abroad. According to the company’s January 2017 financial report, international sales comprised $3.2 billion—approximately 13% of Northrop’s total $24.5 billion revenue—and of last year, Northrop noted growth opportunities that included selling RQ-4 Global Hawk drones and MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones to South Korea, Japan, and Australia. Australia is currently awaiting placement of an order of six to eight MQ-4C Triton aircraft to operate alongside a fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft and replace the Royal Australian Air Force’s 18 aging Lockheed AP-3C Orions.

In addition to the significant technology upgrades, the RQ-4 is now about 50% cheaper to operate, costing about $14,500 per flight hour compared to the U-2’s $32,000. “What we’re trying to do on Global Hawk is make it the preferred high-altitude ISR system,” said Jaggers.

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