Lockheed Martin is revealing additional details about its submission for the US Navy's unmanned carrier launched airbone surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme, saying it has already built a full-scale mock-up of the flying wing design.
"We have a full-scale mock-up," says Robert Ruszkowski, Lockheed's director of UCLASS programme development. "That's been a good engineering tool to look at fit checks."
For its concept, the company's Skunk Works design team has selected a flying wing configuration because it is particularly well suited for the missions that the UCLASS is expected to fly.
"There is nothing inherently unique about a flying wing, but we have a lot of experience with them," Ruszkowski says.
The flying wing's combination of aerodynamic efficiency, potential for very low signatures and structural simplicity make it ideal for an application like the UCLASS, he says. The design would allow the aircraft to be adapted to operate against a broad swath of threats, ranging from permissive airspace to the anti-access/area-denial environments.
"We've got the right shape for that, we've got the right materials from the [Lockheed Martin] F-35 that can be readily leveraged," Ruszkowski adds.
While the Lockheed UCLASS has the range and persistence to fly deep into enemy territory, it does not have the weapons payload of a true long-range strike platform like the old Grumman A-6 Intruder. "We think there is an element of the mission set that might be for long-range operations, but it is truly not for large payloads at long ranges," Ruszkowski says. "Trying to keep the system affordable, this will not be anywhere near a replacement for an A-6 from a strike perspective."
Because flying wings are structurally simple, they are also easier to manufacture, which helps the design to be affordable. "There is not as much tooling associated with say a flying wing compared to a more conventional design," Ruszkowski says.
Lockheed also plans on reusing as much existing hardware as possible on its UCLASS design - that might even mean adapting equipment such as the aircraft's landing gear from another platform.
The company is also designing its UCLASS concept to have open architecture avionics, not only so that existing computer hardware can be reused, but also to allow the USN to modify the sensor payloads easily. "The navy has made it clear they would like to have the ability to put new sensors or new mission systems onboard UCLASS over time," Ruszkowski says. "Obviously open architecture facilitates that."
From the specifications released by the navy, it is apparent that the service is focusing on the interfaces for the various sensors and communications gear - which suggests an open architecture design will be required.
Lockheed has also worked hard to make sure one operator can "fly" multiple aircraft, Ruszkowski says. The operator would control the aircraft by exception, which means he or she would only directly intervene in the operation of a particular UCLASS air vehicle if something of particular significance were to occur. By and large, the Lockheed UCLASS is designed to operate as autonomously as practical, given navy operational doctrines and rules of engagement, as well as air traffic management procedures.