Northrop Grumman expects to start demonstrating a universal payload adaptor for the RQ-4B Global Hawk with various sensors carried by the Lockheed Martin U-2 after signing a cooperative research and development agreement on 14 July with the US Air Force.

The payload adaptor should allow the RQ-4B to carry a variety of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors normally carried by the Lockheed Martin U-2S, specifically the United Technologies Aerospace Systems (UTAS) Optical Bar Camera (OBC) and SYERS-2C. A demonstration is also expected to take place with a UTAS MS-177 mulitspectral sensor.

The cooperative research agreement gives Northrop access to government aircraft and sensors to trial the payload adaptor, which was developed internally by the company.

The air force told Flightglobal earlier this month that demonstrations with the OBC could start in early budget year 2016, which starts in October, once the agreement is signed. A contract to integrate the MS-177 with the high-altitude unmanned air vehicle is also expected around that time, and one of the eight operational SYERS-2 sensors will also be made available "for a short period".

UTC MS-177

The view from an MS-177 electro-optical infrared camera flown on a Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System in 2011.

Northrop Grumman

Northrop has been pushing its payload adaptor concept since the air force decided to retire the RQ-4 Block 30 in favour of the U-2 in its 2013 budget submission. The service has since changed course, opting to retire the U-2 starting in 2019.

Lockheed Martin and some within the military have raised doubts about the Global Hawk’s ability to employ the SYERS-2 and other sensors as effectively as the U-2 because of its lower cruse altitude and performance characteristics, but the air force appears undeterred following a congressionally-mandated feasibility study.

The modifications involves the software and hardware changes, to include the installation of 17 payload mounts and a new payload bay cover. The UPA is expected to accommodate sensors weighing up to 544kg (1,200lbs).