WASHINGTON — The agency responsible for providing imagery for the U.S. Department of Defense would like to step up its use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), an official said.

However, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and other agencies that would like to integrate UAVs into their operations likely will have to wait in line, because the demand for the vehicles by the U.S. military is so high, government and industry officials said.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency gathers and disseminates satellite and aerial imagery for the Defense Department using a wide range of classified and unclassified sources.

Rob Zitz, the agency’s technical executive said UAVs would be particularly useful in providing imagery in areas where manned aircraft are denied access. Imagery satellites are not constrained by airspace restrictions, but sensors aboard UAVs can provide higher resolution imagery and can linger over the target.

The Global Hawk began life as a demonstration program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the late 1990s, and the first prototypes were undergoing testing when terrorists attacked the United States Sept. 11, 2001, said Edward Walby, director of new business for the Global Hawk program. The experimental vehicles were pressed into service in Afghanistan and Iraq and impressed officials with their ability to provide surveillance for more than 30 consecutive hours, he said.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is interested in UAVs for collecting high resolution radar imagery of the Earth down to the centimeter level for mapping purposes, Walby said. Northrop Grumman has been in contact with the agency as well as other U.S. federal agencies interested in using Global Hawk.

However, use of UAVs by organizations other than the U.S. military is constrained by availability of the vehicles, both Zitz and Walby said. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency “has a real need and real money to follow through, but there are not many assets available,” Walby said.

The first production Global Hawks for the U.S. Air Force are nearing completion, and the first Air Force unit will begin training flights by this summer, Walby said. Currently, Northrop Grumman can produce about 12 per year, and the first 53 production units are designated for the military, he said.

Two of the production units are for the U.S. Navy, and Zitz has said the service has expressed interest in providing both manned and unmanned platforms to collect data for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Howard Cohen, a spokesman for the agency, said Jan. 18 that no officials were available to expand on Zitz’s comments.

The capabilities of the Global Hawk also have sparked interest from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, Walby said.

NASA is eyeing the vehicle as a less expensive replacement for NASA’s ER-2 research plane, a converted U-2 spy plane, Walby said. A Global Hawk carrying a scientific sensor package would be capable of flying longer and gathering more data because it would not be constrained by the limits of a pilot, he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is looking to use Global Hawk for hurricane tracking as well as a project to gather long-term data on surface and ocean temperature around the globe, Walby said.

Developing of new Global Hawk technology also is continuing, company officials said.

Northrop Grumman also has developed a version of the Global Hawk, dubbed the RQ4B, with an open system architecture that will allow users to exchange sensor packages aboard the vehicle, allowing scientific agencies to perform multiple missions with the same vehicle, Walby said.

Raytheon Co.’s Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, Calif., produces the Global Hawk control segment and also has received an initial production contract for three integrated sensor suites for the vehicle, the company announced Jan. 11.

Under the contract, Raytheon will produce an enhanced integrated sensor suite with both synthetic aperture radar and improved electro optical capabilities, the company said. The first suite is scheduled to be completed in March 2006.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also is funding efforts to bring UAV capability down to the squad level, with separate programs awarded to Northrop Grumman and Honeywell.

Northrop Grumman is developing a system that can bring data from UAVs and other reconnaissance assets and intelligence sources directly to the soldier via a handheld computer. While the $11.6 million heterogeneous urban reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition program is focused on small UAV systems, the technology could eventually be used with larger vehicles such as Global Hawk, the company said.

Honeywell has begun flight tests of a 33-centimeter UAV that a soldier can carry in a backpack, Vaughn Fulton, Honeywell’s program manager for unmanned aerial systems, said. Tests of the Micro Air Vehicle will continue through March, and Honeywell plans to deliver a prototype to the U.S. Army in April, he said. The first vehicles could be deployed as early as November.

The gasoline-powered vehicle is a ducted fan air UAV, meaning it flies like a helicopter and is able to loiter over specific targets for up to 45 minutes, Fulton said. Northrop Grumman also is developing a larger diesel version of the vehicle that will be able to stay aloft for a minimum of two hours, he said.

The company has not yet had any official discussions with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency about the small UAV, but the vehicle can carry both electro-optical and infrared sensors, Fulton said.

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