Saturday, February 28, 2009

Week in review (2/22 to 2/28)

The most significant news to come down the pike during the week for the Gulf Coast region may have been President Barack Obama's $3.55 trillion budget. It includes $533.7 billion in fiscal year 2010 for the Defense Department and $18.7 billion for NASA. Both agencies play major roles in the economic health of the Gulf Coast, and both budgets represent increases over the previous fiscal year. More on the budget later.

First, last week we told you about the growth expected in the field of unmanned aerial systems. So it makes sense to take a look at another field of robotics that's likely to grow. In this case, think bionic man or woman.

At the Association of the United States' Army Winter Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during the week, Lockheed Martin debuted a robotic exoskeleton designed to improve a soldier's strength and endurance. It's called the Human Universal Load Carrier – not much of a name until you pronounce it as an acronym: HULC.

Under a licensing agreement with Berkeley Bionics of California, Lockheed Martin will advance the development of the HULC design to provide soldiers a powerful advantage in ground operations. Rich Russell, director of Sensors, Data Links and Advanced Programs at Lockheed Martin, said that with the company's enhancements to the HULC system, soldiers will be able to carry loads of up to 200 pounds with minimal effort.

HULC transfers the weight from heavy loads to the ground through the battery-powered, titanium legs of the lower-body exoskeleton. An advanced micro-computer ensures the exoskeleton moves with the individual. HULC hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton allows for deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting with minor exertion.

Lockheed is also exploring exoskeleton for industrial and medical applications. (Story)

It was years ago that Ken Ford, director of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla., told me to keep an eye on this field. IHMC is heavily involved in doing research in a range of artificial intelligence fields, including giving humans some machine-like capabilities. These systems fit the human and machine components together in ways that exploit their respective strengths and mitigate their respective weaknesses.

Now back to the budget. The Defense Department would get a baseline budget of $533.7 billion in fiscal year 2010, up from $513.3 billion appropriated by Congress in 2009, under Obama's proposed budget. The DoD budget is important to this region, which is home to military bases as well as large and small defense contractors. For an administration that has made it a key aim to keep people working, funding of DoD does just that.

- The development of the F-35 is continuing on track. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is no doubt interested in progress of the F-35, since it will be the home of the Joint Strike Fighter training center beginning in 2010. During this past week Lockheed Martin's second short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B Lightning II accomplished its first flight. The aircraft, known as BF-2, joins a conventional takeoff and landing F-35A and another F-35B that already have logged a combined total of 84 flights.

- At Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., the base announced during the week that Brig. Gen. Greg Touhill will turn over command of the 81st Training Wing to Col. Ian Dickinson April 6. Dickinson, who reports to Keesler Air Force Base by March 31, is Joint Staff deputy chief information officer at the Pentagon. Touhill’s new assignment is Chief, Office of Military Cooperation, U.S. Central Command, Kuwait.

Twice during the week Air Force officials said that the aerial tankers remain the Air Force's top priority. Gen. Duncan McNabb, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, told a joint hearing of the seapower and air and land forces subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee that the tanker is his No. 1 modernization priority.

And during a military conference in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by the Air Force Association, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley also said the replacement is the top priority. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expects to issue a new request for bids this spring.

Boeing is competing against a Northrop Grumman/EADS for the $40 billion project to replace the fleet of KC-135s. Northrop/EADS won the competition in February 2008 and planned to assemble them in Mobile, Ala. But a Boeing protest was upheld by the Government Accountability Office and later the Pentagon decided to wait for the new administration.

Some, most notably Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, are calling for a split buy. During his visit to Mobile, Murtha has said he was pleased to learn EADS would build cargo planes in Mobile if it won the tanker contract. EADS, parent of Airbus, said last year that it would produce a cargo version of the A330 airliner if it won the Air Force competition.

During the week Aviation Week wrote that Airbus is preparing to birth a new generation of freighter aircraft just as the industry is seeing declines in demand. But Airbus is looking beyond the immediate crisis and making a long-term bet on creating freighters that could compete with rival Boeing. This could be big for Mobile – should EADS win the Air Force contract. And if it doesn’t? EADS’ push with freighters could still be important to Mobile’s aviation future.

At the end of the week, the Mobile Press-Register reported that Northrop Grumman and EADS North America have been asked by Mobile officials to hire Bay Haas, the retired airport authority executive director, to coordinate local support for the effort to win the contract to assemble aerial refueling tankers in Mobile.

The newspaper said the request was made in a Feb. 18 letter. A spokesman said Northrop Grumman is giving the suggestions "active consideration."

When Haas retired in November, he was expected to continue to do work for the airport authority as a consultant for $10,000 a month for 19 months. But that never happened because of questions raised about whether it was a violation of part of the state ethics law that bars agencies from hiring former executives for two years after they leave. (Story)

Extra money, especially in these hard economic times, is always welcome. And now NASA is looking at how to use some extra money coming to the agency thanks to the stimulus plan.

The agency found out during the week that the Obama Administration wants to provide NASA with a budget of $18.7 billion in the 2010 fiscal year. When combined with the $1 billion provided for NASA in the Recovery Act, the funding is more than $2.4 billion above the 2008 level.

NASA managers are looking at options for spending an extra $400 million from the stimulus. Among the possibilities: extra flight-test to speed up development of the Ares I, or advancing development work on Ares I and Orion.

- NASA during the week awarded an interim letter contract to Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston to begin work on the design, development and production of a new spacesuit system for the Constellation Program.

- At the end of the week, Boeing submitted a proposal to NASA for Altair lunar lander design support. NASA is expected to award multiple contracts this spring. The lunar lander will launch aboard the Ares V heavy-lift rocket. Recently Boeing submitted proposals for the Ares V Phase 1 Design Support Contracts.

Sci-tech parks
Northwest Florida's Santa Rosa County Commission during the week voted to use $3.1 million to buy 90 acres not far from Interstate 10 to use for industrial development. Pullum Park will join the nearby Santa Rosa County Industrial Park and the planned Whiting Aviation Park as county-owned property available for industrial development.

At another science and technology park in the region, growth seems to be at hand.

Six years after its opening, the University of South Alabama's Research and Technology Park has filled current buildings and an expansion is being considered. Ker Ferguson, the park's director, said the university is negotiating costs for new building construction and is talking with prospective tenants. The park already has land available for new construction, and now might be a good time considering lower construction costs.

The Research and Technology Park, which opened on 35 acres in 2003, is intended to give companies an opportunity to gain access to students and collaborate on research efforts with students and faculty. It now has almost 300,000 square feet of space leased to 16 different companies with more than 600 employees. (Story)

There were two contracts awarded during the week with a Gulf Coast connection. The Air Force modified a contract with Textron Systems Corp. for $9.5 million to provide additional sensor fuzed weapons. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. The Air Force also modified a contract with Northrop Grumman for $5.8 million to provide engineering, manufacturing and development infrastructure activates in support of the Global Hawk Program. Global Hawk fuselage work is done in part in Moss Point, Miss.

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