Monday, June 7, 2010

Aerovironment’s Global Observer: Flying High, Again

The late Dr. Paul McReady’s Aerovironment, Inc. has achieved just renown for the success of its small UAVs like the Army’s RQ-11 Raven and the US Marines’ RQ-14 Dragon Eye/Swift. Outside the military sphere, however, it is best known for civil successes like the human-powered Gossamer Condor, the giant, solar-powered Pathfinder and Helios aircraft, and the flying Quetzalcoatlus northropi ornithopter on display in the Smithsonian museum. 

Those traditions have fused in a major Advanced Concept/Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (ACTD/JCTD) contract for a UAV that runs on hydrogen fuel cells, and can cruise at 55,000-65,000 feet for up to 7 days at a time, while carrying a 1,000 pound payload. Meet Aerovironment’s Global Observer, which promises formidable advantages in roles as diverse as communications relay, persistent ISR, maritime patrol, and even storm tracking and weather applications…

The Global Observer JCTD

AIR UAV Global Observer Stratosphere Delivered

Persistent stratospheric/near-space surveillance is a coveted goal of many militaries, not least the USA’s given America’s long shores and wide-ranging ocean interests. As noted above, each aircraft in a Global Observer system is designed to fly at an altitude of between 55,000 – 65,000 feet for 5 – 7 days. That’s above weather systems, and above other conventional airplanes. That height also helps due to the laws of physics, which allow aircraft at that altitude to cover a circular area on the surface of the earth up to 600 miles in diameter, equivalent to more than 280,000 square miles of coverage.

The Pentagon is working to develop lighter-than-air craft like the tethered JLENS aerostats and free-ranging High Altitude Airship blimps for this role, but there’s also a niche for an unmanned vehicle offering less persistence and lift, more speed, and an immediate “Plan B” option in case the blimp-related projects don’t pan out, or satellite programs like AEHF or TSAT fail to deliver the required bandwidth into theater. 

When Aerovironment President & CEO Tim Conver talks about delivering “a brand new value proposition – affordable persistence in the stratosphere,” this is what he’s referring to.

The goal for Global Observer is for payload capacity of up to 400 pounds for GO-1 & 1,000 pounds for the second GO-2 series aircraft. Propulsion uses liquid hydrogen fuel and fuel cells to drive 8 small rotary engines set along the wings; as noted above, the goal is 7-day flights. Missions could include:
  • Wide-area “persistent stare” reconnaissance for defense and homeland security missions, probably using radars rather than optical payloads as the primary sensors;
  • Signals and communications intercepts over a wide area, for long periods of time;
  • Low-cost, rapidly deployable augmentation for telecom bandwidth, and even GPS;
  • Hurricane/storm tracking, weather monitoring, wildfire detection, and sustained support for relief operations;
  • Aerial imaging/mapping, for defense uses or for civilian commercial and environmental monitoring, agriculture crop management and harvesting optimization.
A total of 6 government organizations are sponsoring the Global Observer JCTD program, reflecting broad interest in its potential capabilities for military applications. The Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Advanced Systems and Concepts (DUSD (AS&C)) selected Global Observer as a Fiscal Year 2007 JCTD Rolling Start in the Fiscal Year 2007 Advanced Concept/Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (ACTD/JCTD) Congressional Report, and designated US Special Operations Command as the Technical Manager to lead it.

Multiple communication and remote sensing applications have already been demonstrated from this operating position, including high definition broadcast (HDTV) video, and third generation (3G) mobile voice, video and data using an off-the-shelf mobile handset. The September 2007 contract will provide for additional testing and demonstrations that could easily translate into full production if the design is successful.

Contracts & Key Events

Global Observer

May 25/10: Aerovironment provides a program update. Final assembly of Aircraft 2 is proceeding. With respect t GO-1, a final Flight Readiness Review will be conducted soon. Initial flight testing is expected to consist of low-altitude, battery-powered flights at Edwards AFB, in order to test Global Observer’s airworthiness and handling.

Communications relay and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads are being prepared for installation into the aircraft, once development flight tests have been completed. Joint operational utility flight demonstrations are the next step after that. 

March – April 2010: The joint Department of Defense, NASA and Aerovironment team performs aircraft system tests on Global Observer Aircraft 1 to test hardware and software readiness, and support ground and flight crew training in preparation for the initial flight series. Taxi tests confirm autonomous propulsion, data link operation, steering and braking. Source.

February 2009: The joint team completes ground vibration and structural modes interaction tests on GO-1 at Edwards AFB, California. Source.

December 2009: First Global Observer aircraft (GO-1) shipped to Edwards AFB, CA. Source.

June 3/09: Aerovironment announces that the Global Observer Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) program has exercised an option for the assembly of a 3rd Global Observer aircraft, and additional items. The release adds that 6 contract options have been exercised since the program began, bringing the cumulative value to $120 million – $12 million over the original maximum. This 3rd aircraft will still have the 400 pound capacity limit found on early model aircraft.

The order for the 3rd aircraft comes at the midpoint of the JCTD and follows a series of milestones in design, development and testing of the Global Observer system, including successful Preliminary Design Review and Critical Design Reviews. To date, Aerovironment has received contracts for the development, fabrication and testing of 3 aircraft, 2 launch and recovery elements, Systems Integration Laboratory testing, and other development items.

Operation of the advanced hydrogen-fueled power generation system continues in an altitude chamber, after previous successful, multi-day tests.

Sept 27/07: The basic $57 million contract, which will be funded under a cost-plus fixed-fee arrangement, provides for design, fabrication, integration, and ground testing of a hydrogen powered Global Observer Unmanned Aircraft System. The system includes one aircraft and ground control station with integrated modular payloads and spares, contractor operation and logistics support for the Global Observer JCT demonstrations, including flight testing. It also includes options for for the development and delivery of up to 2 additional Global Observer aircraft and an additional ground control system, as well as military utility assessment and engineering trade studies, resulting in a potential contract value of $108 million.

The JCTD is intended to demonstrate the tactical utility of a hydrogen-powered UAS for long duration (five to seven day) missions at altitudes from 55,000 to 65,000 feet. A system consisting of 2-3 aircraft will provide continuous ISR or communications relay over an area of interest. Work will be performed in Monrovia, CA from Sept 21/07 through April 30/11 (H92222-07-C-0072).

Aug 28/07: Dr. Paul MacCready, the entrepreneur, founder and former chairman of the board of directors of AeroVironment, Inc., passes away in his sleep. His work included many of the path-breaking designs that would inform the Global Observer project. Aerovironment.

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