Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works demonstrates new UAV

Published 21 July 2006

Unmanned vehicles — in the air, on land, and at sea — are the wave of the future; Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works demonstrates a third-generation UAV/UCAV, nicknamed Polecat, made of composite materials; the Polecat is the company’s best hope of gaining ground in the UAV race — ground it has lost during the past ten years to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is the unofficial name for the company’s Advanced Development Programs unit (formerly Lockheed Advanced Development Projects Unit). The unit has been responsible for several famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the SR-71, and the F-117. It is currently working on the F-35 JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) which will be used in the air forces of several countries around the world. Skunk Works said a couple of days ago that it has secretly built and flown a large, high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which has been designed to test several new technologies central to what the company foresees as a the third generation of unmanned platforms, platforms which sometime during the coming decade will begin to assume ever-greater responsibilities in U.S. defense and homeland security missions.

The high-altitude flying wing demonstrator was nicknamed Polecat. It was launched in March 2003 with $27 million of internal Lockheed Martin funding and was completed eighteen months later. Its first flight took place last year, and its key feature is an advanced laminar flow wing which features a blend of high aerodynamic efficiency with a very low observable (VLO) radar cross-section.

Skunk Works chief Frank Cappuccio says that the Polecat demonstration program aimed to provide Lockheed Martin with information in three areas important to next-generation UAVs: reducing the manufacturing costs associated with largely composite airframe designs; lowering the capital cost of UAV manufacture through advanced tooling techniques; and integrating a fully autonomous flight control and mission-handling system which will allow future UAVs to conduct missions, from take-off to landing, without the intervention of human operators.

Note that the Polecat architecture will allow this UAV to be configured either in the more traditional role as collector of intelligence, or as a more recent incarnation of UAVs as strike aircrafts (also called UCAV, for unmanned combat air vehicle). In the first version, the Polecat, as an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) vehicle will carry a 1,800 kg sensor payload and offer a 24-hour endurance; as a long-range strike (LRS) aircraft, it will offer a 6,800 kg payload and a 3,700 km operational radius.

There are business ramifications to all this: Polecat is essential to Lockheed Martin’s game plan for gaining ground in a race it appeared to have lost in the past decade to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics in developing first- and second-generation UAVs and UCAVs.