Switches with wings: UAVs as comm relays

Giant blimps are not the only vehicles capable of stratospheric flight. Fixed-wing aircraft such as the Lockheed U-2 have done it for decades.

What they haven’t done, however, is stay there at length.

Enter Global Observer, a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration project run by the Defense Department’s Office of Advanced Systems and Concepts. Program officials plan a 2009 test flight, for five to seven days, of a liquid-hydrogen-powered, unmanned aerial vehicle capable of lifting 400 pounds to about 60,000 feet.

Proponents say the UAV effort has one big advantage over airship projects such as the Missile Defense Agency’s High Altitude Airship(HAA). “The technology is pretty mature — the endurances are certainly much shorter — but it’s a demonstrated capability,” said Dyke Wetherington, deputy director of unmanned warfare at DOD’s Office of Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

“In the near term, I don’t think we’ll see an operational capability for a high-altitude airship,” whereas Global Observer could be ready for production by 2011, Wetherington said.

A Global Observer concept of operations could embrace both tactical and strategic use, Wetherington said. Tactically, it could act as a communications router and conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks over a war theater. Strategically, it could act as a surrogate satellite, relaying data gathered by lower-altitude UAVs down to the ground. The UAV’s short-endurance time — relative, at least, to the still theoretical HAA — doesn’t disqualify Global Observer from a strategic role, Wetherington said. Five to seven days of flight doesn’t sound like much compared to HAA, he said, which would stay airborne for about a year, but “it’s five to seven times what we have with any platform today.”

Generating one mission every week for a single aircraft is a fairly low operational tempo, he said. Global Observer would cost “much less than $10 million apiece,” Wetherington said. A robust communications routing capability on board would be about another $1 million or $2 million.

The Navy also has a high-altitude project, although the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance platform would fly lower, at altitudes of about 40,000 feet.

The Navy released a request for proposals for system development and demonstration and low-rate initial production phases in February 2007. The service forecasts initial operating capability by 2014.

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