Updated March 4th, 2024 at 13:39 IST

Northrop Grumman to initiate transformation of Range Hawks for hypersonic monitoring

These modified drones, part of the SkyRange program, aim to streamline data collection and enhance aerial testing capabilities.

Reported by: Yuvraj Tyagi
RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system | Image:Northrop Grumman
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Northrop Grumman, a leading aerospace and defense technology company, has announced plans to adapt the next two RQ-4 Global Hawk drones into aircraft capable of monitoring hypersonic system tests. In an interview, Northrop Grumman executive Doug Shaffer revealed that the company is set to commence integration testing on these modified drones, referred to as Range Hawks, later this summer, with delivery to the Defense Department's Test Resource Management Center expected by early 2025. 

The RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is renowned for its capabilities in persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Designed to fly at high altitudes for extended durations exceeding 30 hours, the Global Hawk gathers near-real-time, high-resolution imagery of vast land areas in all weather conditions, supporting military operations across multiple regions. 

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Critical role in military operations 

With over 320,000 flight hours accumulated, the Global Hawk has played a vital role in military operations in regions such as Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, and the Asia-Pacific. Its ability to provide affordable and flexible platforms for various sensor payloads has made it indispensable for delivering mission-critical information to users worldwide. 

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The adaptation of two RQ-4 Global Hawk drones into Range Hawks marks a significant advancement in aerial testing capabilities. These drones, repurposed from a batch of retired Global Hawk drones, will serve as airborne test data collectors for hypersonic system tests. This transition aligns with efforts by the Air Force, NASA, and TRMC to enhance testing capabilities through the SkyRange program, aiming to streamline data collection processes for hypersonic tests.

Expansion of SkyRange Program 

Following the success of the initial three adapted RQ-4s, TRMC is expanding the SkyRange program to include newer Block 20 and 30 models. Northrop Grumman's Vice President of Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Targeting Programs, Doug Shaffer, emphasized advancements in sensor technology that enable the mounting of telemetry sensors onto drones, facilitating data collection on hypersonic launches. 

Northrop Grumman plans to modify the remaining RQ-4s in batches, with each modification expected to take approximately eight months. However, the timeline for updating the entire fleet depends on sufficient funding for the program. While details on the cost of each updated Range Hawk were not disclosed, Shaffer noted that subsequent modifications are expected to become more cost-effective as the program progresses. 

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In response to plans by the Air Force to retire its remaining RQ-4s, lawmakers have intervened to prevent the fleet's mothballing until after fiscal 2028. This legislative action underscores the continued importance of the RQ-4 fleet in supporting national security objectives and emerging technological advancements in aerial surveillance and testing capabilities. 

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Published March 4th, 2024 at 13:39 IST