Northrop dusts down Pegasus UCAV

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X-47A prototype to support manufacturer's risk-reduction efforts as it pursues US Navy's UCAS-D programme

Northrop Grumman is bringing its X-47A Pegasus unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) back into use to support risk-reduction activities linked to its bid for the US Navy's unmanned combat air system demonstration (UCAS-D) programme.

The aircraft, which had been in storage since its first flight in February 2003, is being prepared at Northrop's Palmdale, California site for ground, shipborne and airborne trials, says UCAV programmes director Scott Winship.

"You can surrogate everything up to the actual landing on a carrier," he says. "The real aircraft has got to have all the right stuff, but it is cheaper and faster to do it with Pegasus or a Pegasus-like vehicle. The secret is not being unmanned, but being tailless."

Speaking at IQPC's UCAV conference in London on 29 November, Winship said Northrop has also overhauled the X-47A's flight-control system software following windtunnel tests intended to resolve a "porpoising" problem experienced during the aircraft's short-lived flight test programme.

The USN is circulating draft documents ahead of a formal request for tender to be issued by early 2007, although Congress has yet to approve its UCAS-D budget. Boeing also plans to bid for the requirement, which could be followed in 2012-13 by a contest for an operational carrier-based system.

Winship says continued pressure on the UCAS-D budget will drive an increased role for surrogate systems in both the lead-up to a downselect decision next May, and the demonstration phase from fiscal year 2008 to 2013. The X-47A has been used for initial unpowered exploration of carrier deck handling arrangements for UCAV systems. It will also investigate remote throttle control and precision approaches.