Saturday, July 4, 2009

Week in review (6/28 to 7/4)

In the world of unmanned aerial systems, it doesn’t get much more fascinating than the work being done by California’s AeroVironment. The Monrovia-based company, which has a training operation in Navarre, Fla., is working on a flapping-wing micro unmanned system.

The prototype bird-like unmanned aircraft in April received $2.1 million in Phase II funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency under its Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) program – initiated to develop a new class of air vehicles capable of indoor and outdoor operation. It was awarded after the company accomplished controlled hovering flight, using the wings for propulsion and control. The battery-powered vehicle climbed and descended, flew sideways, and forward and backward. (Video)

What’s fascinating about this is that the UAV employs biological mimicry on an exceptionally small scale. The goal is to provide the military with new reconnaissance capabilities in urban environments. (Story)

AeroVironement is also involved in DARPA’s Stealthy, Persistent, Perch and Stare (SP2S) program. DARPA wants to develop the technology for air vehicles capable of flying to difficult targets, landing on and securing to a “perch” position, conducting sustained, perch-and-stare surveillance missions, and then re-launching from its perch and returning to its home base.

The key technical challenges include multifunctional materials that integrate the airframe structure with the power supply and antennas, control systems, perch-and-grip technology and all the technologies associated with a micro camera. AeroVironment is using its Wasp platform. That hand-launched, battery-powered UAV weighs just under one-pound and has a wingspan of 29 inches.

Developments in this field are of high interest to the Gulf Coast region. Northrop Grumman builds unmanned aerial systems – Global Hawk and Fire Scout – at a plant in Moss Point, Miss. And the Gulf Coast is also the home of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, which does research in biological mimicry. Among its projects is one where a machine that can “walk” over uneven terrain.

Is Boeing going to set up an aircraft assembly line in the Southeast? That was some of the buzz during the week. Multiple news organizations reported that Boeing may buy supplier Vought Aircraft Industries’ plant in North Charleston, S.C., and establish a second 787 assembly plant there.

The plant makes fuselage sections for the 787, but the purchase would put more of the troubled 787 program directly under Boeing’s control. Analysts say it would make sense as a way to cope with the backlog of orders for the program, already two years behind schedule.

Washington state, of course, wants to keep any second line in Puget Sound, but South Carolina is a "right to work state" and was in the running in 2003 when Boeing was looking to build the 787 outside of Washington. Mobile, Ala., and Hancock County, Miss., were among the finalists for the 787 plant in 2003.

- Boeing chose Alliant Techsystems to make the upper stage ullage motors for the Ares I launch vehicle. The Ares I is NASA's two-stage rocket that will launch astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft on missions to the International Space Station, the moon and beyond. The ullage motor is similar to the Space Shuttle booster separation motor. Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center, Miss., are both involved in the Constellation Program. Boeing has an operation at Michoud and ATK an office in Northwest Florida.

Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., will see a decrease of 31 military positions and an increase of 15 civilian positions as a result of the Air Force's proposed force structure realignment for fiscal 2010. The 81st Training Wing will have an increase of 14 civilian positions, while the 85th Engineering Installation Squadron and the 19th Operational Group Detachment 6 each will get an additional position. The 81st Aerospace Medicine Squadron's aeromedical staging flight will see a decrease of 31 military positions due to mission transfer earlier this year. Other miscellaneous actions resulted in a decrease of one civilian position.

- A proposal by the city of Mary Esther, Fla., to annex a 3-mile stretch of Hurlburt Field is designed to make his city larger and increase state revenue-sharing dollars. The annexation would add 2,000 residents who live in base housing and barracks on the land. The city would not assume any new services or maintenance duties, but residents of the annexed area would be able to vote in local elections and run for office. Mary Esther's population is about 4,500 now.

- Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi is adding a fourth daily flight to Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport. The expanded service starts Aug. 25 on American Airlines/American Eagle. The additional flights will leave Gulfport at 10:55 a.m. daily and leave Dallas for the Coast at 11:10 a.m.

- Officials from the 16th Special Operations Squadron held a squadron flag-transfer ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., to mark the official transfer of the squadron from Hurlburt Field, Fla. The 16th SOS flies the AC-130H gunship and conducts missions such as close-air support, air interdiction and force protection. The AC-130H is armed with 40 mm and 105 mm cannons. Det. 1 of the 16th SOS stood up at Cannon in July 2008 to prepare the way for the arrival of eight aircraft and nearly 500 people.

Fire Scout
In Moss Point, Miss., a taxiway linking the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center to the Trent Lott International Airport should be operational soon. Right now is just needs lighting. Northrop Grumman does finishing work on the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter at the center, and wants to do product flight testing in South Mississippi. Jackson County Economic Development Director George Freeland said the addition of the taxiway could create at least 16 more jobs at the center.

- A Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout successfully completed first flight operations at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz. Unlike current Navy configured Fire Scouts, this one, designated P7, was built for land-based operations and is the first MQ-8B to fly without flight test instrumentation usually installed for developmental flights. The P7's tests will continue throughout the summer. Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

A $2.4 million state grant will be used by a GE Aviation and the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials for research on composite materials for an GEnx engine to power the Boeing 787 and 747-8 aircraft. The grant is from the Mississippi Development Authority. GE Aviation, which has a plant in Batesville producing composite-material parts for jet engines, will spend $2.5 million on the research. About 15 to 20 USM students and faculty will work on the one-year project.

- Rolls-Royce received type certification for the new BR725 engine that will power the first flight of the Gulfstream G650 business jet later in the year. Type certification was from the European Aviation Safety Agency. Testing was done at various Rolls-Royce locations in Europe and the United States, including the outdoor jet engine testing facility at NASA’s John C Stennis Space Center, Miss.

This and that
- Members of the Air Force Reserve Command's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron deployed to their detachment to St. Croix, U.S.V.I. to fly training missions over the Caribbean in preparation for the 2009 hurricane season. Unit Airmen are part of the 403rd Wing located at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., and are the only Department of Defense unit flying into tropical storms and hurricanes collecting critical data. During the next months until Nov. 30, the Hurricane Hunters will be honing their skills in special WC-130J Hercules aircraft.

- Goodrich Corp. opened a new facility in China’s Tianjin Airport Industrial Park to support nacelle and thrust reverser original equipment as well as maintenance, repair and overhaul activities. Part of Goodrich's Aerostructures business, the 50,000 square foot facility will perform work for customers in the region. It also will support engine buildup and podding work for the new Airbus A320 family aircraft final assembly line in Tianjin. Goodrich's Aerostructures business runs the Alabama Service Center in Foley, Ala., which provides maintenance, repair and overhaul services on nacelles, doors, fairings, flight controls, pneumatic ducting and wire harnesses.

- The Justice Department has joined a whistleblower lawsuit over a $3.2 billion contract to provide support services at Stennis Space Center, Miss. The suit claims Science Applications International Corp. conspired with federal officials to rig the technology contract awarded in 2004. The suit claims three former or current federal employees conspired to steer a computer project to SAIC. A company started by one of those former employees had teamed up with SAIC to bid on the contract. The suit was filed by David McGee, a former employee at the center.

- A restored Lockheed Electra, the type of plane Amelia Earhart was flying when she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, was unveiled Thursday at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. July 2 was the 72nd anniversary of Earhart's disappearance during an attempt to circle the globe. The musem's Electra is painted in Navy colors with dark blue wings, but is otherwise outfitted the same as Earhart's plane.

Lockheed Martin is being awarded a $441.9 million modification to definitize the previously awarded Joint Strike Fighter Air System Low Rate Initial Production Lot III advance acquisition contract to a cost-plus-incentive-fee/award-fee contract. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is scheduled to become the JSF Training Center. … Kaman Precision Products Inc., Orlando, Fla., is being awarded a $53 million firm-fixed contract for joint programmable fuze systems. 679th Armament Systems Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

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