By Graham Warwick at Franborough air show

Lockheed Martin's Skunks Works pulled the surprise of Farnborough by taking the wraps off a high-altitude unmanned aircraft demonstrator, the P-175 Polecat, designed and built in just 18 months and flown in secret five months ago.

The all-composite flying-wing UAV has a wingspan of 27.4m (90ft), 4,080kg (9,000lb) gross weight, 455kg payload, and is powered by two Williams FJ44-3E turbofans producing a combined 6,000lb thrust (26.7kN).

The laminar-flow Polecat is designed to cruise at 65,000ft (20,000m), to get above the altitudes at which tell-tale contrails form, says Frank Capuccio, executive vice-president and general manager of advanced development programmes.

 Polecat Lockheed Martin W445
© Lockheed Martin

The Polecat was developed and built in secret in just 18 months

Goals of the company-funded project, which cost $27 million, include demonstration of rapid prototyping and advanced composite structures and manufacturing based on missile, rather than fighter, design concepts to dramatically reduce costs.

Others are to demonstrate autonomous take-off and landing and next-generation mission planning using Internet Protocol-based technology, says Cappuccio. Although there are no low-observable materials on the aircraft, "the shape is about right", he says.

The UAV is at Palmdale, California for installation of sensors, and is expected to fly again in September to test a contrail suppression sensor. The aircraft is also planned to participate in a US Navy demonstration called Icarus.

Lockheed has been under pressure to declare its intentions for the unmanned aircraft market, and the Polecat technology demonstrator could lead to either a stealthy high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance UAV with 18-24h endurance, or a subsonic long-range persistent strike vehicle.

In response to the US Air Force's analysis of alternatives for a long-range strike capability to enter service in 2018, Lockheed is looking at four options: a Mach 4 missile carried by a fighter; the FB-22 medium-range bomber derivative of the F-22; a subsonic UAV based on Polecat; and a supersonic UAV.Capuccio favours a Mach 2.5 unmanned aircraft.

Source: Flight International