Warning

 

Close

Confirm Action

Are you sure you wish to do this?

Confirm Cancel
Member Login
Posted: 2/9/2006 7:56:31 AM EDT


One Small Step for Drones

Legendary 'Skunk Works'
Helps Lockheed Martin Jump
Into Unmanned-Plane Market
By JONATHAN KARP
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 7, 2006; Page B1

PALMDALE, Calif. -- For decades, Lockheed Martin Corp. has pioneered innovative warplanes -- the kind that take pilots higher, faster and more stealthily into enemy airspace. Now, the defense giant is diving into a sizzling market that it previously ceded to rivals, one that will keep pilots on the ground.

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; another would fly at nine times the speed of sound. 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. "I think the smart money is on smaller, simpler drones and the operating systems that make them effective," he says. "That's where Lockheed is well positioned to add value."

Lockheed's focus on drones comes after years of wrestling over developing unmanned planes for fear of undermining its franchise business in fighter jets. The company now feels both more secure about funding for its fighter programs and more compelled to jump on the multibillion-dollar drone bandwagon. The country's biggest defense contractor by sales, Lockheed is perceived as playing catchup in drones to Northrop and Boeing Co., and small firms such as closely held General Atomics, whose Predator -- armed with a Lockheed-made missile -- has been used to hunt down al-Qaeda figures.

That Mr. Cappuccio, a fast-talking, 59-year-old aeronautical dreamer, has gingerly lifted the shroud of secrecy over Skunk Works attests to the importance of the drone market as well as Lockheed's desire to be recognized, as he says, for "trying to shape it."


Concept drone's wings can fold in flight.


Set up in 1943 to create the first U.S. fighter jet, the Skunk Works has been at the vanguard of flight. Its name, a registered Lockheed trademark, is derived from Skonk Works, a mysterious locale in the "Li'l Abner" comic strip where they distilled Kickapoo Joy Juice. Hiding in plain sight in Burbank (its factory once was camouflaged as a residential neighborhood with help from Walt Disney Co.) and later in Palmdale, Skunk Works engineers created the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 supersonic spy plane and the radar-evading F-117 stealth fighter. During a rare visit by an outsider to the Skunk Works complex, a factory hall was filled with the prototype of a massive helium-filled airship that one day might ferry troops and heavy equipment to distant battlefields faster and more efficiently than ships -- no port or airbase needed. The blimp would float just above the ground on four hover pads, meaning that "you could literally pick a farmer's field" to set down in, says program manager Robert Boyd. The airship had its maiden flight last week.

Though no drones were buzzing around, the Skunk Works these days devotes some 40% to 50% of its own research funds to unmanned aircraft, Mr. Cappuccio says. Quietly, Lockheed has already contributed to the drone revolution. Skunk Works developed flight-control systems for the Dragon Eye, a five-pound, hand-launched reconnaissance drone used by Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003.

It also designed and delivered the seven-pound Desert Hawk within 127 days of receiving an Air Force request. The total cost for the first six drones and laptop-computer control system was less than $400,000, Mr. Cappuccio says. To date, Lockheed says it has supplied 126 Desert Hawks, which are used for surveillance to protect U.S. bases in Iraq.

The Skunk Works's new concepts, like the morphing drone, are more ambitious. With funding from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, the Skunk Works set out to develop a plane whose wings can fold inward in flight so it can transform from a slow, loitering aircraft into a speedy plane that swoops in to drop a bomb. The project tests the viability of new materials for aircraft skins and "smart" controls that enable the plane to morph within "10 to 20 seconds without falling out of the sky," Mr. Cappuccio says.

The drone hasn't yet made it aloft, however. First, a prototype was damaged during ground tests, and in September, Lockheed says it crashed on takeoff because of a glitch in flight-control software supplied by another company. Mr. Cappuccio, who believes such a drone could be developed within five to six years, isn't deterred. "Skunk Works is one place where you can fail successfully," he says. Lockheed is moving ahead without further Pentagon funding for now and aiming for a flight test in June. At the least, its continuing research could lead to advances in technologies for the skin of many types of aircraft.

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.

Further off, he notes, is the Falcon, a conceptual drone bomber that would fly at Mach 9 near the edge of the atmosphere. In addition, the Skunk Works is currently assisting Northrop's development of a combat drone -- in part because Lockheed wants to keep up with emerging technologies in preparation for an expected competition for a new manned bomber. Mr. Cappuccio declines to comment on an Aviation Week & Space Technology report that the Skunk Works is designing a stealthy, long-endurance spy drone like one Darpa funded it to study in the 1990s.

The Skunk Works' nascent openness clearly has its limits. But just because Mr. Cappuccio guards details of classified programs, doesn't mean that you can't find Skunk Works pencils, hats and shirts on sale at the onsite gift shop here or the group's skunk logo on drones in Iraq. Mr. Cappuccio endorses that kind of public awareness of what his 4,200-person unit does. "Twenty years ago, we could never say we worked here," he says. "This generation won't tolerate that."
Link Posted: 2/9/2006 8:00:08 AM EDT
If that is what LM's Skunk Works people are publically disclosing, I would love to know what they have actually in production.
Link Posted: 2/9/2006 8:08:55 AM EDT
My thought is if they are telling us this, what are they really doing?
Link Posted: 2/9/2006 11:58:47 AM EDT
can u imagine one of these little suckers skimming along 4 feet off the deck headed along the border or somewhere? Too cool if they are produced inexpensively.
Top Top