AUVSI: Skunk Works lifts curtain on new UAV programs

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Lockheed Martin's advanced development programs division - also known as Skunk Works - has chosen the AUVSI show to lift the curtain on two previously internal concepts for new unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).

The new disclosures reveal how far Lockheed has pushed internally during the last decade on sophisticated unmanned technology, even as rival manufacturers Boeing and Northrop Grumman worked on the high-profile, ill-fated, joint unmanned combat air systems (J-UCAS) program.

A concept image showing the multipurpose long-endurance (MPLE - pronounced "maple") reveals a twin-boomed UAV with a high-aspect ratio wing set against a desert backdrop at a medium altitude elevation.

Lockheed confirms MPLE will challenge the Aurora Flight Sciences' Orion vehicle for a new Air Force Research Laboratory contract to demonstrate a medium-altitude surveillance aircraft that can remain airborne for five days, says Bob Ruszkowski, a Skunk Works systems engineer.

Ruszkowski declined to divulge MPLE's propulsion system, although he ruled out hydrogen. Asked if the aircraft is battery- or gas-powered, Ruszkowski says only that the aircraft will employ a highly efficient propulsion system.

MPLE is actually a scaled-down version of a much larger concept design developed by Skunk Works, he adds.

IN THE NAVY

Meanwhile, Skunk Works also described its approach to the US Navy's new requirement for an unmanned, carrier-launched, airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system.

A request for information issued by the Navy in May called for concepts that were "heavy on the surveillance mission, and light on the strike," Ruszkowski says. Lockheed is waiting for the Navy to release a draft request for proposals in October to further clarify the requirements.

Ruszkowski says Skunk Works will leverage technology developed for the RQ-170 Sentinel and the F-35C carrier variant for the UCLASS mission. To illustrate the company's long interest in carrier-based UAVs, Skunk Works unveiled a new photo of a nearly forgotten UAV concept called the multi-role endurance (MRE) UAV (shown above). Flightglobal published a story about the MRE program 10 years ago, using a completely different image for the Lockheed concept.

Lockheed's MRE concept would have been able to lift a 907kg (2,000lb) sensor or weapon payload and remain airborne for 12-14h, Ruszkowski says.