Northrop Grumman last month started flight testing the third in a series of sensor payloads intended to enhance the mission capability of the unmanned RQ-4B Block 30 Global Hawk. The manufacturer expects the U.S. Air Force will make a decision on fielding the new MS-177 multi-spectral long-range imaging sensor on Global Hawk by the end of the year.
The first flight of a Global Hawk fitted with the UTC Aerospace Systems’ MS-177 was conducted from Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, California facility on February 8. Flight testing is expected to continue through the first half of the year, followed by operational testing of the sensor in advance of an Air Force fielding decision, the manufacturer said.
MS-177 testing follows flight demonstrations of two UTC sensors used on the manned U-2S intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, but previously unavailable on Global Hawk. In February 2016, Northrop Grumman flew the Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System-2 (SYERS-2) on the unmanned aircraft and more recently completed flight tests of an optical bar camera broad-area synoptic sensor.
In 2011, Northrop Grumman conducted flight tests of the MS-177 fitted to the Air Force’s E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JStars) platform—a Boeing 707-300. In January and February 2016, General Atomics flew the 500-pound electro-optical/infrared sensor on the turbofan-powered Predator C Avenger unmanned aircraft at Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, California. The U.S. government-funded testing demonstrated the Avenger’s ability to collect high-resolution imagery of land-based and littoral objects with the MS-177 at altitudes above 37,000 feet msl.
UTC announced in September last year that it had started development of an improved MS-177A capable of 10 optical bands under an Air Force design contract calling for the company to begin delivering systems in 2019. The sensor flown on the Global Hawk last month was an MS-177, according to Northrop Grumman.
Under a 2015 cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the Air Force, Northrop Grumman developed a universal payload adaptor that attaches to the underside of the Global Hawk to connect new sensor payloads to the Block 30 aircraft, a “multi-intelligence” platform that carries electro-optical, infrared, synthetic aperture radar and signals intelligence sensors. The manufacturer notes that it developed the payload adaptor and introduced an open mission system (OMS) software architecture to the Global Hawk in 18 months under the CRADA, and at far lesser cost—$80 million—than the Air Force’s initial estimate of $600 million.
Adding capability for other, sophisticated sensors positions the Global Hawk to replace the venerable U-2 Dragon Lady, which the Air Force plans to begin decommissioning in 2019.
“The MS-177 is the new benchmark in imaging ISR sensors and its integration into the Global Hawk platform expands the mission capability we can provide,” said Mick Jaggers, Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk vice president and program manager. “This successful flight is another milestone in an aggressive effort to demonstrate Global Hawk’s versatility and effectiveness in carrying a variety of sensor payloads and support establishing OMS compliancy.”