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STARLite UAV radar ready for Army tests next month

 - June 16, 2009, 6:59 AM

Northrop Grumman’s AN/ZPY-1 STARLite unmanned aerial vehicle radar begins tests with the U.S. Army next month aboard the General Atomics MQ-1C Sky Warrior ERMP. In October, the company is to deliver the first qualified production units.

The U.S. group fielded the first UAV radar in Bosnia in 1994, and in 2002 demonstrated the first UAV-based radar cuing of electro-optical/infrared sensors. It has been leveraging technology from its larger active electronically scanned array radar programs to produce a unit that is small enough to be carried by UAVs. The result is STARLite (small tactical advanced radar lite).

The U.S. Army’s Communications and Electronics Command (CECOM) awarded a contract for 15 STARLites in April 2008, and later added a further 18 units. Northrop Grumman began contractor tests of production units aboard its Pilatus test bed in April. Although the equipment is specified for the MQ-1C, STARLite also has application to other UAVs, such as the MQ-8 Fire Scout (FCS Class IV).

In its current incarnation the STARLite measures just 7.5 inches high, with an 8.36- by 3.21-inch antenna array. It weighs less than 80 pounds and has a power requirement under 800 kW. The antenna is mounted on a gimbal, so it scans mechanically in azimuth, but electronically in elevation.

STARLite provides high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery, sufficient to allow easy identification of targets such as aircraft on a ramp. Its ground moving target indication mode includes the ability to color-code traffic moving in different directions.

Northrop Grumman is continuing development along two paths. First, it is broadening the radar’s applications, particularly in the fields of maritime employment and coherent change detection in post-processing. It has already demonstrated its ability to determine the path of vehicles by their wheel track footprints. Foliage penetration is another area under study.

Second, the company is looking at scaling down the design still further, without compromising the mature technology already employed. The company has a target of around a 30-percent size reduction, enabling the radar to be carried by UAVs in the RQ-7 Shadow class.