Friday, February 20, 2009

Week in review (2/15 to 2/21)

Those who follow the aerospace industry already knew it, and a study by the Teal Group simply confirmed it - and gave it some numbers. The most dynamic growth sector in the aerospace industry: unmanned aerial vehicles.

A 2009 market study by the Teal Group, of Fairfax, Va., estimates spending on unmanned aerial vehicles – or if you prefer, unmanned aerial systems – will nearly double to $8.7 billion annually over the next decade. That’s more than $62 billion in the next 10 years.

The 364-page study says the United States will account for 72 percent of the worldwide research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) spending on UAV technology over the next decade and some 61 percent of the procurement. Europe is the second largest market, followed by Asia-Pacific.

The study also examined UAV payloads, including electro-optic/infrared sensors, synthetic aperture radars and more. That portion of the sector is forecast to increase to nearly $5 billion in a decade from the current $2 billion. (Story)

What's striking about this field is that it has both military and commercial applications, and in addition to sensors, it involves everything from computer science to advanced materials and more. And it's not just aerospace – there are also unmanned land and sea vehicles that will likely grow.

The Gulf Coast region is fortunate to have a foot in the door.

A few years back Jackson County, Miss., started working with Northrop Grumman to get a Fire Scout helicopter drone plant in Moss Point. I recall the head economic development saying it would be hard to get residents to look beyond the immediate number of jobs and see it as a building block for the future.

But it didn't take long before Northrop decided to build Global Hawks at what it eventually named the Unmanned Systems Center. They also did some work on Hunter UAVs. The plant is capable of doing a lot more, and Northrop has said it expects to send more work to the plant. The company also has divs on another 30 acres at the Moss Point’s Trent Lott Aviation Technology Park. This year Northrop will be flying Fire Scout unmanned helicopters over South Mississippi.

Santa Rosa County, Fla., is also involved in this aerospace sector. AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif., which has developed a series of highly successful, small UAVs, including the Raven, has its training and support operations in Navarre, between Pensacola and Eglin Air Force Base. It's grown from a six-person operation in 2004 to more than 40 employees today.

There's a day in the future when pilots will find their role diminished if not eliminated. Think that unrealistic? There likely was a time in the past when people could not picture going on an elevator without someone at the controls. Maj. Lee Kloos of Eglin, chosen to become an F-35 instructor, considered it a privilege to be chosen, especially since Air Force aviation is moving toward unmanned aerial systems. "This is a unique opportunity and there won't be many more like it," he said. Perhaps prophetic words.

It's possible to envision armed UAVs in the future using Eglin to test some of the munitions being developed at the base. Oddly enough, the pilots flying those drone may not even be based at Eglin. Some of the UAVs may be flying autonomously, thanks to advances in computer intelligence systems. And the Gulf Coast has an operation that's a leader in artificial intelligence systems: The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla.

These robots aren’t just airborne. A short time ago in Panama City, Fla., engineers at Tyndall Air Force Base came up with a robot that can refuel aircraft with minimum human intervention.

During the past week Northrop Grumman's relative navigation system was selected by the Air Force for the Automated Aerial Refueling program follow-on contract. Relative navigation, the ability to measure the relative motions of two vehicles, is crucial to the aerial refueling of drones. The AAR is designed to work with the existing tanker fleet, but is there any doubt plans call for being able to adapt it to unmanned aerial tankers?

The Navy also has a keen interest in UAVs. Like the Air Force, it's interested in relative navigation. And the Navy is also interested in surface and underwater unmanned systems. An analyst from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recently said he's concerned the Navy's 30-year modernization plan leaves some gaps. Robert Work recommends more R&D work on smaller, manned and unmanned undersea vehicles and autonomous systems. The Gulf Coast has a group that's involved in underseas vehicle: The Undersea Vehicles Technology Center at Stennis Space Center, part of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.

This is an opportunity our economic development officials need to continue to pursue.

- There was also a bit of news during the week related to Mobile, Ala., and its bid to become home to a Northrop-EADS aircraft assembly complex. You’ll recall that a few weeks ago U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., toured the site in Mobile where the facility would be located. At the time he said he was impressed that EADS would also build cargo planes in Mobile if it wins the contract. He also said he's in a favor of buying some planes from Northrop-EADS, and some from competitor Boeing.

He made the same comment after touring the 767 final assembly facility in Everett, Wash. The visit was part of a fact-finding mission. Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, was invited by Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. Murtha also toured the 737 and P-8A Poseidon aircraft facilities in Renton.

Despite Murtha's comment, he has a long way to go to convince others. The Pentagon doesn't like the idea, and Boeing's allies may well see the current environment as more conducive to Boeing winning this next competition. But Boeing also likely understand that Northrop and EADS would not let a Boeing win go without a protest. The loser in all of this will be the warfighter who have to continue to rely on aging tankers.

For an administration that wants to save jobs in this country, a split buy would not only save jobs in Washington State and Kansas, but would create new ones as well in Alabama and the Gulf Coast region.

Just when you thought it was settled, the F-35 noise issue heated up again during the week. The City of Valparaiso, Fla., voted to sue the Air Force over the F-35 Record of Decision. Two commissioners, both of whom had opposed a previous Freedom of Information Act suit against the Air Force, were absent for the vote.

The Air Force earlier this month signed a record of decision that allows construction to begin for the Joint Strike Fighter training center. To address noise concerns, the Air Force is limiting use of one runway. But Valparaiso officials feel the noise issue will destroy home values and be the end of the city.

We'll of course keep an eye on this one.

- Brig. Gen. Greg Touhill, 81st Training Wing commander at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., has been selected for a new assignment as Chief, Office of Military Cooperation, U.S. Central Command, Kuwait. Touhill came to Keesler in October 2007. Announcement of his replacement is expected soon.

- Lt. Col. Brenda Cartier has assumed command of the 4th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Cartier is the first female flying squadron commander for the Air Force Special Operations Command. She replaced Lt. Col. Jim Rodriquez.

We should mention a rift that's playing out in Northwest Florida pitting Okaloosa County against Bay County. Media reports say officials from Okaloosa County accuse rivals of spreading lies that Northwest Florida Regional Airport – the former Okaloosa County Regional Airport – will close.

It apparently goes back to a January 2008 e-mail by Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce claiming the airport's lease with Eglin Air Force Base would end after 2010. At the time, the chamber was trying to get support behind the Panama City-Bay County International Airport project. Eglin, in fact, renewed the lease until 2032, and the chamber apologized for the misunderstanding. But apparently rumors have continued. (Story)

The odd part about all of this is that, yes, the airports in the region compete with their immediate neighbors for passengers and flights, but there are some real benefits having airports in New Orleans, Gulfport, Mobile, Pensacola, Okaloosa County and Panama City. While there was talk in the past about combined airports – Pensacola and Mobile, for instance, sharing an airport in Baldwin County – that thinking eventually faded away. Offering visitors the option of multiple airports has been the defacto mindset. The loss of any one of the region's airports would hurt the entire region.

- Okaloosa County Airport Director Greg Donovan presented an updated master plan for Northwest Florida Regional Airport at a public meeting during the week. The biggest news was a discussion about a six-acre site east of a new rental car and overflow parking area that has been designated for commercial development – perhaps a hotel and restaurant.

- In Pensacola, a new radar approach control facility at Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport is nearing completion. The $21 million Terminal Radar Approach Control facility is replacing the current 31-year-old building. In Milton at Whiting Field Naval Air Station, construction wrapped up on a new $4 million control tower replacing one built in 1972.

NASA signed a five-year, $45 million contract during the week with American Tank and Vessel Inc. of Mobile, Ala., for installation of a test cell diffuser and associated systems in the A-3 test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The test stand will test the J-2X engine that will power the upper stage of the Ares I crew exploration vehicle and the Earth departure stage of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle. Construction began on the A-3 stand in summer 2007, with the first test scheduled for 2012.

- Boeing's Space Exploration division submitted proposals for the Ares V Phase 1 Design Support Contracts. The proposals are for design support of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle's payload shroud; the Earth-departure stage; the liquid-fueled central booster element core state; and avionics and software. The two-stage, vertically stacked Ares V will be NASA's primary rocket for delivery of large-scale hardware to space.

- NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite left California during the week for its trip to Kennedy Space Center. The satellite's mission is to search for water ice on the moon in a permanently shadowed crater near one of the lunar poles. LCROSS is a companion mission to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO. At Kennedy the two spacecraft will be integrated with an Atlas V launch vehicle and tested for final flight worthiness. LCROSS and LRO are the first missions in NASA's plan to return humans to the moon and begin establishing a lunar outpost by 2020.

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