Northrop Grumman is partnering with composites manufacturer VX Aerospace on a canister-launched unmanned air vehicle that could fly on the US Navy’s updated Boeing E/A-18G Growler.

The Office of Naval Research funded an October flight test that demonstrated the Dash X, a 3.66m (12ft)-long folding UAV, could collect and share electronic warfare information in flight with a manned aircraft.

Northrop modified a Bombardier Dash 8 with a sensor suite, which directed the UAV to change missions and locations in real time during the experiment. Northrop’s first experiment marked a shore-based test and will tackle aircraft separation in the next funding phase.

During a tour at its mission systems facility outside Baltimore, Maryland this week, Northrop’s Mission Systems naval aviation campaign director showed off the expanded UAV and its compact form folded inside a cluster munition-type canister. Northrop has not settled on the UAV package’s final form, but the ultimate concept includes the expendable Dash X that would deploy from the canister via parachute, says JJ Thompson. Dash X could be thrown from any aircraft, whether it’s a Growler or Boeing B-52H, and use listening devices located on its belly to talk back to the host platform.

“We did a demonstration where these flew forward, looked for an unlocated RF [radio frequency] object, they went out and they found that vehicle, they listened for the whispering and they pulled it back to this test airframe and they were able to detect, identify and geolocate,” he says.

Northrop is working Dash X through ONR, as well as the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Naval Air Systems’ PMA-265, which handles the service’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and EA-18G fleets. The US Navy appears to be interested in Dash X as part of a manned-unmanned teaming effort with its Block II Growlers, Thompson says.

With its 3.66m-long wingspan and thermal signature emanating from the small combustion engine mounted above its nose, the Dash X has a significant radar cross section. But while some may underestimate the UAV’s survivability, Thompson argues that the aircraft's 60kt speed and tin airframe are precisely what will allow Dash X to fly close to its target.

“How does a company go from making B-21s to this?” Thompson says. “It is actually survivable because it is absolutely so slow and so small, when you think about how military systems are designed, they’re designed to shoot down tactical jets and you’re actually build into radars gates that take away things just as birds.”