WASHINGTON — This February, Northrop Grumman began testing an advanced, multispectral sensor aboard its RQ-4 Global Hawk, moving the high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft closer to being able to replicate the imaging capabilities of the aging U-2 spy plane.
A Global Hawk equipped with United Technologies' MS-177 sensor took off from Northrop's Palmdale, California, facility on Feb. 8. During the flight, the sensor collected imagery, which will allow Northrop to calibrate the MS-177 so that it can take quality video while flying high above its target on the ground, said Mick Jaggers, the company's program manager.
"Think about it as being [similar to] if you've ever been in a car, and your hand shakes. We've got to figure out how our hand shakes when we take pictures. So that's what this first flight is doing, and so now we're zeroing out all those deltas, so we take very crystal clear pictures," he said.
The company plans starting a second round of flight tests within the next month to conduct developmental testing to validate the sensor integration, and operational testing after that will help form the concept of operations.
Over the past several years, the Air Force and Congress have been locked in an at times perplexing battle over whether to get rid of the Global Hawk or the U-2. First, the service planned to divest its Global Hawk fleet to pay for the U-2 — a plan that Congress rejected, citing the U-2's greater sensing capabilities. In fiscal 2015, the service switched tactics, proposing to get rid of the U-2 to keep the Global Hawk, which had become cheaper to operate. That was also met with congressional disapproval.
For now, the Air Force intends to keep its U-2 fleet until 2019, allowing Northrop Grumman time to bring the Global Hawk's sensors up to par, although the Trump administration could alter the game plan.
Jaggers demurred when asked whether he expected the Air Force to stick to its current strategy, but defended the Global Hawk as a lower-cost alternative to the U-2.
"What we’re trying to do on Global Hawk is make it the preferred high-altitude ISR system," he said. "The decision for how the United States Air Force employs airpower is a decision for the United States Air Force."
But, he added, Northrop has made significant technology upgrades by integrating new sensors and opening its systems architecture. Additionally, the Global Hawk is now about 50 percent cheaper to operate per flight hour, costing about $14,500 per flight hour compared to the U-2’s $32,000.
The Air Force has awarded Northrop about $80 million to integrate MS-177s on two Global Hawks, which will be fielded by the end of the year. The service has plans to acquire more MS-177s for its RQ-4, Jaggers said, adding that he projected that contract would be announced in 2017 as well.
The MS-177 is the last of three sensors Northrop has integrated with the RQ-4, having already tested the Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System-2C (Syers-2C) and Optical Bar Camera that are found on the U-2.
Jaggers said the MS-177 is more powerful than either of those, with a larger focal plane and having the ability to collect visible, shortwave and midwave infrared imagery. Its maneuverability is also a key feature.
"In the past when you had to maneuver the airplane, you may not have been able to look down a mountain valley because it’s obstructed by a hangar door. But now because you now have the sensor be agile and pivot it forward and aft, you can actually take pictures in the past you were never able to tackle before," he said. "So this is going to open up an entire world for the operators of Global Hawk."