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AUVSI: Northrop tries spreading Heron wings

The US Army's roadmap for unmanned aircraft systems includes a plan to re-wing the MQ-5 Hunter in the near future, but where the funding will come from for such a project is unclear.

The wing would come from Israel Aerospace Industries' medium-altitude long-endurance Heron UAV. A similar concept was floated to the Army by Northrop and Israel Aerospace Industries for the Army's extended-range multipurpose (ERMP) contract, called the Hunter II. The effort ultimately lost the 2005 competition to the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) Sky Warrior - now known as the MQ-1CGrey Eagle.

Northrop has already completed a series of upgrades on Heron which is the longest serving UAV in the army's inventory and expected to remain in service through 2022. Modernisation upgrades included a switch to heavy-fuel engines, avionics upgrades, ground station updates and a wet wing with hardpoints. The changes have dramatically increased speed, payload capacity, and endurance, Perry says.

The new Heron wing would further extend the endurance of the already modified MQ-5B, from 17, to 21 hours with a standard electro-optical/infrared payload to 35-40h and the aircraft's ceiling from 5.5km (18,000ft), to 7.6km, according to Northrop. The new wing would increase its wingspan from 10.3 metres to 16.4 metres but keep the 110l of fuel it carries and the hardpoints that carry 58.97kg (130lbs) on each wing.

The company estimates the maximum gross takeoff weight of the re-winged Hunter would increase by more than 25% - from 884kg to more than 1.1 tonnes. The Hunter's maximum speed, 120kt, along with current avionics suites, engine, ground system and remote video terminal would remain the same, Perry says. "We are working very hard to find the funding to do this."

Because Hunter is not a programme of record, it remains on year-to-year funding, and finding money for any major programme changes can be difficult, Perry says. "Research and development funding is always at a premium," he says. "If we had the R&D completed, the rest of it would fall into place. Self-funding is an option for some of the project, but "we would need some [money] from other sources," Perry says.

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