September 03, 2012
Credit: Credit: Quest
Amy Butler Baltimore
Northrop Grumman is turning to some unique teaming arrangements to pursue niche, and possibly productive, markets adjacent to the company's traditional defense work with the Pentagon on large platforms.
In the global financial downturn, the Pentagon and large militaries abroad are unlikely to start major new programs at the pace to which the company has grown accustomed. Thus, two of Northrop's recent business ventures are unusual for a company that is geared to chasing major campaigns. One is aimed specifically at training pilots to launch and recover unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—operations where many mishaps occur. Another endeavor is a manned aircraft project to address what company officials see as an unmet need by law-enforcement agencies and developing nations to purchase low-priced surveillance aircraft.
These two undertakings were solidified with partners this spring, just as Northrop Grumman was in full throttle trying to save its premier UAS program, the Global Hawk Block 30, from termination by the U.S. Air Force. As top corporate officials continue to focus on the Global Hawk, a small group within the company is pursuing these smaller ventures.
The Operationally Responsive Systems unit falls under Northrop Grumman Technical Services. A significant part of the operations of its manned aircraft division, called the Aberdeen Integration Center, is located near Baltimore at Martin State Airport, close to the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground. The activities of the unit's unmanned group, called the Unmanned Systems Sustainment Center, are centered primarily in Arizona, although they shift according to where aircraft are deployed.
The Aberdeen Integration Center announced its exclusive partnership with Quest Aircraft to market a surveillance version of the Kodiak single-engine aircraft in March. Design and payload testing are being done on the team's Air Claw demonstrator, a 2009-model of the Kodiak, says Kenny Stidham, the lead test pilot for the project. At $1.7 million per aircraft, the Kodiak falls well below the price of the nearly ubiquitous Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER, a twin-engine aircraft preferred by the Pentagon, or the Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turboprop also used by military customers, says Thomas Kubit, director of business development for the Operationally Responsive Systems unit. The Kodiak received government certification in 2007.
Eighty Kodiaks are in the field worldwide now, most of them in use by non-governmental agencies for humanitarian operations in remote locations in Africa or South America, he says. But the target market encompasses the militaries of developing nations that require some surveillance or intelligence collection as well as law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The technology of the platform and mission systems are not subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Kubit notes.
The per-unit price of the surveillance aircraft is expected to be slightly more than $4 million, the ballpark price of a “green” PC-12, and well under the King Air 350's roughly $8 million list price, says Kubit. The Kodiak-based system “was targeted at bringing an extremely high value and a price point to a portion of the market” that cannot afford today's options, he says.