WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman Information Systems is in the middle of a yearlong test program for a new signals intelligence (Sigint) payload that the company says could reduce the number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) needed to detect and locate enemies in irregular warfare campaigns.

Reston, Va.-based Northrop Grumman developed its Common Signals Intelligence System (CSS)-1500 payload as an upgrade to systems deployed on medium-class UAVs such as the Predator and Reaper. The payload features more processing power and the ability to pick up more types of communications signals than most signals intelligence payloads deployed on this class of vehicle, said Trip Carter, director of airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at Northrop Grumman.

The U.S. military for decades has deployed signals intelligence sensors on manned aircraft and satellites to intercept enemy radio frequency communications. The meteoric rise in the use of UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan has presented the U.S. military with another platform to picking up and locating enemy signals from cell phones, push-to-talk radios and other communications devices. Troops in the field must react to enemy tactics and technologies that change rapidly, so they need systems that are equally flexible, Carter said in a Sept. 28 interview.

“Today it’s all about getting capabilities out there into the field very quickly and meeting a specific warfighter need,” Carter said. “In this case, it’s all about irregular warfare and finding high-value targets.”

The CSS-1500 payload is designed to replace currently fielded signals intelligence systems and was developed entirely with internal funds, Carter said. The unit utilizes 15 processors to create six channels that scan the entire radio frequency communications spectrum six times each second, he said.

“Most the sensors out there today, even the ones that took a longer time to develop, are two-channel systems and they are very limited in a few different ways,” Carter said. “Because of the increased processing power, you greatly improve the ability to recognize many different signal types.”

The increased number of channels would enable a single UAV equipped with this payload to perform signal-gathering missions that are today done by multiple aircraft, he said. UAVs equipped with two-channel systems typically hunt in packs of two or three because a single sensor can determine the general direction a signal is coming from but not its exact location, Carter said.

“Of the systems out there providing direct support to the warfighter, providing real-time actionable intelligence, telling the soldier what’s over the next hill, etc., it’s the most accurate thing that could be put out there today,” he said.

Northrop Grumman, which has been building signals intelligence payloads for 40 years, began developing the CSS-1500 payload in October 2009 and took it out for initial flight demonstrations in February. In March, the company began testing the system under a cooperative research and development agreement with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command’s Communications-Electronics Center at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

This summer, the payload demonstrated the ability to geolocate a signal with a high degree of accuracy in a matter of seconds, Carter said. The next flight tests will take place this month in Sacramento, Calif., and continue through the end of the year, he said.

Northrop Grumman has not had any orders for the CSS-1500 payload but has responded to a number of government solicitations to provide the capability, though Carter would not identify any specific customer or contract competition.

Army spokeswoman Kristen Kushiyama declined to respond to specific questions related to the cooperative test program or make Army officials available for interview.

“While the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command’s Communications-Electronics Center does have a [cooperative research and development agreement] with Northrop Grumman, we are unable to go into the details of the results of the testing,” Kushiyama said in a Sept. 30 e-mail. “Under the [agreement], there are certain aspects such as testing that we cannot discuss.”