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.

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