Saturday, August 28, 2010

Week in review (8/22 to 8/28)

During the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International conference in Denver earlier in the week, a vice president of Northrop Grumman made an interesting observation about two challenges faced by the industry.

Gene Fraser said one challenge is coping with the deluge of data unmanned systems can provide, and turning it into exploitable information to help the warfighter. The other challenge is public acceptance of unmanned systems.

Anyone using today's communications tools certainly understands the first challenge. It's information overload. We're bombarded daily, and the most important information can slip right past us.

The public acceptance challenge wasn't helped by an incident earlier this month involving an unmanned helicopter that wandered into restricted airspace in Washington D.C. The Navy said the communication link with the Fire Scout was lost, and once it was regained by another control station, the UAV returned to a base in Maryland. It was a software issue that has now been addressed.

Those issues aside, the move towards unmanned systems - land, sea and air - is growing. In a battlefield environment, unmanned systems allow commanders to get situational awareness quickly, and at a lower cost than manned systems. The Denver AUVSI meeting included hundreds of displays at the convention center showing off the latest in unmanned systems. Some of the systems are already operating, but some are designs put on display to attract the interest of investors and the military.

Bob Davis of Northrop Grumman spoke to reporters about Fire-X, the new unmanned helicopter being developed by Northrop Grumman with partner, Bell Helicopters. The company began working on Fire-X when it detected the emergence of new missions requiring a helicopter larger and more capable than Fire Scout.

Fire-X is an unmanned version of the Bell 407, which has about 2.5 million flight hours under its belt. It has 60 cubic feet of interior space and will be able to carry 3,000 pounds of payload. One idea being considered: a foldable rotor system.

Northrop Grumman's experience with converting the manned Schweitzer 333 into the Fire Scout provides for Northrop Grumman a template. By all accounts the Fire Scout has performed admirably. It's had more than 1,000 flights, and one Fire Scout even participated in a high-seas drug bust.

"We think we know a whole lot about this environment," Davis said.

The Fire-X project was made public in May, and plans are to have the demonstration model, being built in Texas, take its first flight test in California by year's end. Davis said the company has certainly given thought to where the helicopters would ultimately be built, but at this point the focus is on the development program.

I don't think it's a stretch to say one place that has to be considered for some of this work would be the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss. The plant currently does fuselage work on the Global Hawk and finishing work on the Fire Scout, and in the past it's also done work on the Hunter. It has the space and, importantly, FAA approval for UAV flights.

We'll just have to wait and see.

NASA's chief technologist, Robert Braun, paid a visit to NASA's Stennis Space Center during the week as part of a national tour to bring attention to the $5 billion Space Technology Program slated to start next fiscal year.

The program will focus on developing transformative new space technologies, from propulsion systems to space habitats and more. By and large, SSC is more noted for test and evaluation. But Braun sees SSC playing a role in the Space Technology Program primarily through the Innovative Partnerships Program.

IPP at Stennis Space Center is responsible for the research and development of new technologies, as well as the assessment, certification, and acquisition of new technologies from the commercial, academic, and government sectors in order to improve safety, efficiency and the effectiveness of propulsion testing, earth science applications, and Stennis Space Center's institution.

The innovative partnership program will become a part of Braun’s office in 2011.

- Stennis Space Center during the week cut the ribbon on a new, storm-resistant Records Retention Facility that consolidates and protects records storage at the rocket engine test facility. The new facility will protect the history and the historical documents related to Stennis and its rocket engine test work. It was designed to meet all specifications and storage criteria set forth by the National Archives and Records Administration. Stennis is the first NASA center to open a NARA-compliant storage facility.

New project
GE Aviation will create a $45 million coatings facility for military jet engine components in Alabama. GE Aviation is in the final stages of selecting a site for the center. The coatings facility will be involved in the GE Rolls-Royce F136 jet engine being developed for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The Alabama facility will be 200,000 square feet and is expected to open in the 2011-2012, employing 300-400 people. Pratt and Whitney makes the primary engine for the F-35, and GE Rolls-Royce is the alternate engine.

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the home of the Joint Strike Fighter Training Center.

An F-16 was blown apart at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to test an aerial-target flight termination system. The test was to demonstrate not only the flight termination system design, but to assess the debris footprint. The QF-16 is a supersonic reusable full-scale aerial target drone that will provide a 4th generation full-scale aerial target for air-to-air and surface-to-air weapons system evaluation conducted by the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Currently the WEG uses QF-4s.

- Robertsdale, Ala., will hold a public meeting next week so local residents can provide comments on Navy plans to extend runways at two outlying fields in Baldwin County. The Navy wants to extend runways at the Barin and Summerdale outlying fields and will acquire 200 acres at each site.

The outlying fields are used by pilots training at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla. The T-6B Texan, a more powerful aircraft, is scheduled to replace the T-34 Turbo Mentor.

Regal Select Services Inc., Abbeville, Ala., was awarded a $22.8 million contract for facility inmate grounds and public works services at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. It provides for routine grounds maintenance and other as needed services aboard the air station and surrounding areas. … L3 Communications Aerospace LLC, Madison, Miss., was awarded a $28.4 million time-and-material contract for aircraft workers. Work is to be performed at Corpus Christi Army Depot, Corpus Christi, Texas, with an estimated completion date of Jan. 28, 2011.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Week in review (8/15 to 8/21)

In case you missed it, a new Gulf Coast group was announced during the week in New Orleans. This one is called "Ready 4 Takeoff Coalition," and it describes itself as an "action-driven alliance that supports critical economic development projects that focus on building a better tomorrow for the vital Gulf Coast region."

According to the Mobile Press-Register, the group says that, given the string of disasters that have afflicted the Gulf Coast in recent years, the federal government ought to focus its power on spurring economic development in the region.(STORY)

One project mentioned on the group's Web site is the Air Force's $40 billion effort to replace its fleet of aerial tankers. EADS is battling Boeing to build tankers for the Air Force, and if EADS wins the planes would be assembled in Mobile, Ala. But the group also calls on the government to use its purchasing power to ensure a "robust" Gulf Coast seafood industry, and backs accelerating revenue sharing from offshore oil and gas development.

If you're starting to get confused about all these groups that have been cropping up of late, here's a brief rundown:

Late last year the governors from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana announced the formation of the Aerospace Alliance, which also includes Northwest Florida but apparently not the rest of that state. That group, too, backs the tanker project for Mobile. But it also says on its Web site that "other priorities will include the growth of the space initiatives in the Alliance, driven by those companies and states involved in the nation’s space program."

Also last year there was the creation of a group called the Stennis-Michoud Corridor Alliance. Formed by Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, it includes the heads of the state economic development organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as other Mississippi and Louisiana economic development groups and representatives of some of the region's aerospace companies.

Then there's Mobile County's Keep Our Tanker initiative focused on the tanker project, the Gulf Coast Aerospace and Defense Coalition promoting three counties in Northwest Florida, South Mississippi's Mississippi Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor and the four-state, I-10 focused Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor. Plenty of players, that's for sure.

The Ready 4 Takeoff group, which goes beyond aerospace, includes economic development organizations, cities, counties, chambers of commerce and other interests from an area between New Orleans and Pensacola, Fla.

The Web site says this group is "committed to the following principles to help turn the economic tide and build the economy of the future in the Gulf." It speaks about the strong pro-business environment and skilled workforce, and about maximizing the region’s strengths, and building a better tomorrow.

It's probably good that there are so many players interested in leveraging the Gulf Coast region's assets. This group is still developing its Web site and approach, and right now the main function appears to be getting people to sign up to show support.

But I'm getting a bit uneasy about the "we-have-suffered" approach. Yes, we've suffered through hurricanes and now the oil spill, and we have plenty of other problems as well. But if we're not careful that's the message that will stick.

Wouldn't it be more impressive to point out that we have 15 universities with campuses or significant operations in the region, or to say that $1.2 billion in R&D is performed in this region every year? That's a message that carries a lot of weight.

Let's hope these groups begin to understand that.

New Orleans will get 600 new jobs when Blade Dynamics, a wind turbine blade and component manufacturer, moves into NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility. Blade Dynamics, a British company, partnered with American Superconductor Corp. and Dow Venture Capital on the project.

To qualify for $30 million in state incentives, Blade Dynamics had to incorporate in the United States and place headquarters in New Orleans. It has to create 600 direct jobs by 2015, and the company will invest $13 million.

The state estimates there will be 970 indirect jobs, with $35.8 million in new state tax revenue and $23.9 million in new local tax revenue over the next 10 years. Michoud, which for years built the external tanks for the space shuttle, is one of the world's largest manufacturing centers and sits on 832 acres.

The first Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite built by Lockheed Martin for the Air Force was successfully launched last weekend from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard an Atlas V rocket.

The multi-satellite AEHF system will provide the military with global, protected, high capacity and secure communications. It’s the successor to the five-satellite Milstar constellation. The AEHF constellation will also serve Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Lockheed Martin Mississippi Space & Technology Center at Stennis Space Center, Miss., provides the core propulsion modules for the system.

Jacobs Technology Inc., Tullahoma, Tenn., was awarded a $103.3 million contract modification which will provide technical, engineering and acquisition support at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and its other tenant units. AAC/PKES, Eglin Air Force Base, is the contracting activity. … Rockwell Collins Inc., Government Systems, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was awarded a $140.7 million contract to provide to develop, test and field the next generation range instrumentation systems intended to replace the Advanced Range Data System currently in use on DoD test ranges. AAC/EYBC, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Week in review (8/8 to 8/14)

A lot of people from the Gulf Coast were paying close attention during the week when they learned that Sean O’Keefe was aboard a plane that crashed in Alaska.

O’Keefe, the CEO of EADS North America, did survive the crash, as did his son, Kevin, and two others. But five people, including former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, were killed when the float plane hit a steep mountainside some 300 miles from Anchorage. The group had been on a fishing trip.

O’Keefe served as chancellor of Louisiana State University after he left NASA. Before the week drew to a close, O'Keefe's condition was upgraded from critical to serious.

The Marine Corps is updating its fleet of small transport airplanes and has designated a newly formed squadron at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, La., as home for the first two of the new aircraft. The first UC-12W Huron arrived Tuesday. The "Whiskey" model replaces the older UC-12Bs. The Marines have purchased six of the airplanes from Hawker Beechcraft for $8 million each.

- The 345th Airlift Squadron was officially re-activated as an active associate unit to the 403rd Wing this week at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. The 345th AS is the first C-130J active associate unit in the Air Force and the third active associate unit to activate under its parent wing, the 19th Airlift Wing from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.

- Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ said early in the week that he'll eliminate the Joint Forces Command at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., and assign operational functions to other organizations. That's not sitting well with Virginia congressional leaders, who say such closings should be part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, which requires legislative input.(STORY)

What this may mean for the 144 members of Eglin's Joint Fires Integration and Interoperability Team is still unclear. They've not been told whether the directorate will be eliminated or assigned to another organization.(STORY)

The Eglin team, started in 2005, teaches new equipment tactics, techniques and procedures. It seeks out ways to improve the armed forces' ability to execute joint missions while testing and improving the hardware and software used at the tactical level.

Boeing Co., St Louis, Mo., was awarded a $20.3 million contract modification to provide eight Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) extended user evaluation assets: eight MOP warheads and eight MOP toolkits. The modification will also provide various support items. AAC/EDBK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … Raytheon Co., Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., was awarded a $450.8 million contract to provide engineering and manufacturing development phase of the Small Diameter Bomb Increment II (SDB II) program, GBU-53/B. AAC/EBMK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Week in review (8/1 to 8/7)

For anyone who's followed the ongoing saga of the Air Force's attempt to replace its aerial refueling tankers, it probably wasn't much of a surprise that one of the competitors has already filed a protest.

U.S. Aerospace, the financially troubled California company that teamed up with Ukranian planemaker Antonov for an 11th hour bid on the $40 billion contract, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office after its bid was rejected for arriving five minutes past the deadline.

The company, which filed the protest Monday, said it got to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio a half-hour before the deadline, but could not get into the base. When the courier finally did get in, the messenger got lost. The bid was stamped 2:05 p.m. – five minutes late. The claim is they were delayed on purpose by the Air Force.

Apparently the folks at U.S. Aerospace have never tried to get on a military base, or any federal facility for that matter. If they did, they'd know it's not easy. Reporters learn early on that if you have an appointment at a base – even if it's with the commanding officer – you better give yourself plenty of time. Much depends on the specific base you're going to, but as a matter of course you give yourself an hour, and certainly no less than 45 minutes.

U.S. Aerospace should have practiced by trying to get into Mississippi's Stennis Space Center. Delays there are almost legendary. When the media is invited to any event at SSC, they have to arrive well before the event. The organizations at SSC understand that and take it into account when inviting the media, having them arrive well in advance of the particular event. You don't just go to the desk and get your pass. It's a first-come, first-served.

I have a feeling that if the Air Force had its druthers, it would have preferred to have received the U.S. Aerospace/Antonov package on time. The last thing this program needed was another protest.

So can we assume the only competitors now are Boeing and EADS? The only thing I'm willing to assume in this battle is that Boeing still plans to build the tankers in Washington state and EADS still wants to build them in Mobile, Ala. Beyond that, I'd assume nothing.

While we're on the topic of sagas, the struggle over the direction of NASA may be making its way towards a resolution. I'm sure our space workers at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans will be happy to finally see this issue resolved.

The Senate during the week defied the Obama administration's plans to gut NASA's rocket development program by voting to pass a compromise bill that preserves some of the contracts from the Constellation program.

Just in case you've been too obsessed with the tanker issue and have not had time to tune into this particular struggle, in February the president said he would cancel plans to return astronauts to the moon and beyond and instead have commercial companies send them to low Earth orbit.

That raised concerns for politicians with NASA facilities and Constellation-related work in their back yard. Everyone has been busy trying to hammer out something both sides could live with. Now the bill from the Senate has to be reconciled with one in the House.

Unmanned systems and hurricanes
NASA during the week talked about its upcoming research into the formation of hurricanes. It's called the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes mission, and it's designed to study how hurricanes are created and why they can intensify rapidly.

The mission involves three NASA research aircraft, including the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. While those UAVs are best known for surveillance over war zones, NASA got two early versions of the aircraft to use for earth science missions. Both are based in California, but this story is of high interest to the Gulf Coast because of the obvious - we have to worry about hurricanes. But also because newer versions of the Global Hawk are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

GRIP will run from Aug. 15 to Sept. 25. If you want to learn more about GRIP, grab a PDF version of a story I wrote last year for the quarterly newsletter, Alliance Insight, a publication of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development. I was able to chat with Dr. Ramesh Kakar well before this project became widely known. You can grab a copy of the newsletter here.

The good and not so good
On the good side, Singapore Technologies Engineering, parent of ST Aerospace Mobile in Mobile, Ala., signed a contract to maintain 75 Boeing 757s for Delta Air Lines over the next 18 months. Most of the work will be done in Texas, but at least some will be done in Mobile at the Brookley complex.

The Mobile operation has 1,400 workers. Singapore Engineering also owns VT Halter Marine, which has 1,500 workers in Pascagoula, Moss Point and Escatawpa, Miss.

The not so good: Northrop Grumman issued Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications to 52 employees at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans. Companies are required to provide advance notice to employees in the event of potential large layoffs. But the company remained confident it would get the contract and continue to support the squadron. Northrop Grumman since 1995 has provided maintenance to the Navy Reserve E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning Squadron.

The 308th Armament Systems Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., has been re-designated as the Air Armament Center's Armament Directorate to comply with new personnel strength standards for units across the Air Force. The wing's six subordinate groups were also re-designated as divisions and their 24 squadrons will be re-designated as branches.

The wing's mission will not change and no gain or loss of jobs is expected. The headquarters and staffing locations of the newly re-designated organizations will also remain the same as members continue to manage the acquisition of 14 munitions and combat support programs as well as multiple projects critical to the warfighter.

Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., during the week was awarded a $492.4 million contract to provide air-to-air missiles, instrumentation, test equipment and more for a variety of organizations, including Foreign Military Sales customers, the Air Force and Navy. AAC/EBAC, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.