Skunkworks to produce radical drone aircraft

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Skunkworks to produce radical drone aircraft

As unmanned aircraft prove to be essential to modern warfare in Iraq and elsewhere, Lockheed is shedding its ambivalence and busily developing concepts for newfangled drones.

One drone would be launched from, and retrieved by, submarines. The Skunk Works has fresh Darpa backing for another curious drone, dubbed the Cormorant.

It would be fired out of a submarine missile tube, unfurl itself and carry out surveillance or combat sorties over a range of about 500 miles. Upon return, the drone would ditch itself in the sea and be hauled in by a robotic arm on the sub.

Lockheed, working with General Dynamics Corp., plans underwater trials to evaluate the launch and retrieval systems, as well as the structural impact of a splashdown. If the Cormorant is technically feasible, it could offer the Navy a cost-effective way to give submarines their own reconnaissance capability, Mr. Cappuccio says.

Another would fly at nine times the speed of sound. Further off, he notes, is the Falcon, a conceptual drone bomber that would fly at Mach 9 near the edge of the atmosphere.

A third, which is off the drawing board but not quite airborne, has wings designed to fold in flight so that it could rapidly turn from slow-speed spy plane to quick-strike bomber.

Lockheed is drawing its drones from the same well that produced its stealth fighters: the company's secretive Skunk Works unit. And the unmanned craft are just as radical as some of the unit's past creations. "You have to throw out conventional aerodynamics," Skunk Works head Frank Cappuccio says of the so-called morphing drone, with the folding wings.

As it pursues cutting-edge technologies, Lockheed -- maker of the world's costliest fighter plane, the F-22 -- also wants to throw out conventional economics. The drone ideas it has disclosed are relatively inexpensive, more in the spirit of trailblazing models made in Israel than the $57 million Global Hawk unmanned spy jet made by Northrop Grumman Corp. at the same Mojave Desert airfield where the Skunk Works sits.

The U.S. arsenal should have plenty of room for both types. The fiscal 2007 Pentagon budget unveiled yesterday proposes boosting spending on unmanned aircraft to $1.7 billion next year.

A separate long-term Pentagon blueprint calls for a quantum leap in drones, from hand-launched planes for battlefield surveillance and pilotless scout helicopters to long-range unmanned bombers that military planners expect to make up nearly half of the Air Force's future strike fleet.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst for the Teal Group outside Washington, says that even though Lockheed hasn't been a big drone manufacturer, the company could play a large role in this emerging market.

... Quote:
I think the smart money is on smaller, simpler drones and the operating systems that make them effective, that's where Lockheed is well positioned to add value.
he said.
By netchicken: posted on 9-2-2006

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