The US Air Force's Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle has successfully flown one of the Lockheed Martin U-2 Dragon Lady’s most prized sensors in an aerial demonstration from Northrop’s Palmdale, California site.

The Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System-2 (SYERS-2) demonstration on 18 February comes after the company reached a co-operative research agreement with the USAF in 2015, and demonstrations with the U-2’s Optical Bar Camera and UTC Aerospace Systems' latest multispectral sensor – that will replace SYERS-2, the MS-177 – will follow.

Global Hawk

Northrop Grumman

Speaking at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Florida on 25 February, Northrop’s Global Hawk vice-president and programme manager Mick Jaggers said the first flight of a SYERS-shaped mass simulator occurred on 18 December, using one of two aircraft loaned by the air force.

“Only 15 days after actually receiving the physical SYERS-2 sensor we had integrated it, flown it and taken the first images,” he says. “To date, we have taken over 100 images and our plan next week is to fly that sensor in a profile that’s never been done before, giving it a ride for 30h and taking more images than the SYERS has every taken on a single mission in its life.”

The achievement comes as the air force prepares to spend more than $2 billion enhancing its Block 30 and Block 40 Global Hawks, according to the service’s latest spending profile, published this month. Of that $2 billion, $1.6 billion targets capability enhancements for the 33-strong RQ-4 fleet, including three more Block 30s that will arrive next year.

Global Hawk

Northrop Grumman

The proof-of-concept last week and the trials to come might lead the service to upgrade its entire multi-intelligence RQ-4 fleet to Northrop’s new open software and hardware standard. The modification adds 17 universal payload lugs and new sensor shrouds to the 1,360kg (3,000lb) payload bay as well as and software architecture changes.

“We’re right now negotiating with the US Air Force, that will do their aircraft, and very readily it will be transportable to the NATO airplanes and [MQ-4C] Triton,” says Jaggers. “What’s hard, because of the operational demand, is getting the airplanes back to be able to do the retrofit. It’s about a one or two-month depot-level requirement to retrofit the airplanes.”

Northrop says the MS-177 and the photographic optical bar camera – used for treaty verification – will be demonstrated this year.

Currently, RQ-4Bs are qualified to carry the Raytheon-built enhanced integrated sensor suite for high-resolution reconnaissance imagery, as well as Northrop’s own airborne signals intelligence payload, and the Block 40-carried MP-RTIP radar for long-range moving target indication and synthetic aperture imaging. NASA’s two Global Hawks have tested more than 30 sensor and information-gathering payloads.

“This SYERS-2 flight is only the beginning,” says Jaggers. “We firmly believe that with addition of the [universal payload adaptor], Global Hawk is capable of flying any mission the US Air Force requires.”

Global Hawk

Northrop Grumman

By demonstrating compatibility with U-2-carried sensors, Northrop hopes to put to rest a long-running dispute over which intelligence-gathering platform should be divested first.

The air force last year delayed retirement of the U-2 from 2016 to 2019 due to operational demands, and does not recommit to that retirement date in its latest spending plan.

Lockheed says the air force’s 27 combat-coded U-2S high-altitude spy planes and five twin-seat TU-2S trainers remain operationally relevant, and are superior to unmanned alternatives. The 33-year-old airframes are capable of flying until 2045, the company says.