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Northrop Secretly Builds RQ-180 Spy Drone

by Brendan McGarry on December 6, 2013

X-47B_over_coastline

Northrop Grumman Corp., one of the U.S. Defense Department’s biggest contractors and the driving force behind the Navy’s experimental X-47B drone shown above, has developed a new classified unmanned aircraft for the Air Force, according to a news report.

The system, known as RQ-180, is designed to fly undetected through contested airspace, similar to the now-retired SR-71 Blackbird plane, according to an article by Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week. That may make it a potential weapon against countries such as North Korea, Iran or China.

While the Falls Church, Va.-based contractor and the Air Force have been tight-lipped about the drone and its so-called “cranked kite” design, the reporters pointed to corporate financial statements and satellite imagery of infrastructure that hints at the classified program.

For example, Northrop recently disclosed that an unnamed aircraft program entered early production — several years after reporting a $2 billion backlog increase in the unit that develops cutting-edge weapons programs such as the X-47B drone, according to the article. What’s more, satellite imagery shows new infrastructure such as hangars to accommodate an aircraft with a wing span of more than 130 feet at Northrop’s Palmdale, Calif., site and at the Air Force’s Area 51 test center in Groom Lake, Nev., according to the report.

That would make it much bigger than Lockheed Martin Corp.‘s RQ-170 Sentinel, which has an estimated wingspan of between 65 feet and 90 feet. The RQ-170 has been used for high-profile covert operations such as the 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bethesda, Md.-based contractor last month unveiled plans for an unmanned successor to the famous SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. The new twin-engine, hypersonic aircraft, known as SR-72 and nicknamed “Son of Blackbird,” will be designed to fly as fast as Mach 6. That’s six times the speed of sound — more than 3,500 miles per hour — and twice as fast as its predecessor.

Northrop’s new drone — which is unlikely to go by the moniker “Son of Sentinel” for obvious competitive and legal reasons — has already begun test flights and may be ready for operational missions in 2015, according to Aviation Week. The timeline may explain why the Air Force has pushed to buy fewer of the company’s Global Hawk drones.

Northrop made headlines earlier this year when its experimental X-47B unmanned craft successfully landed aboard the deck of a moving aircraft carrier and is competing for the chance to build the Navy’s carrier-based drone fleet.

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