With so much attention on reducing the deficit and trimming the federal budget, it’s hard to predict the future of composites in military programs, says John Busel, director of the Composite Growth Initiative with ACMA. But there’s no denying that the military segment has been at the forefront of composite technology. “Over the years, military programs have led the way in advancing the use of composites to meet the many performance needs required, whether it’s on the battlefield or for homeland security,” says Busel.
One area where composites continue to make inroads is unmanned military vehicles. Despite governmental concerns over funding issues, several programs are moving forward – in the air and under the sea.
UAVs Take Flight
The most significant use for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is to conduct remote sensing missions, better known as reconnaissance missions. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) began using UAVs as combat drones and the DOD increased its funding for UAV programs significantly after the 9/11 attacks.
A study from WinterGreen Research notes that the UAV market is poised to grow considerably since aerial drones can implement strategic military missions to strike terrorists without injuring civilians. Glass and quartz fibers are used often in the nose cones, small fairings and sensors. Due to increasing demand for payload capacity and extended performance, carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) has been the primary material used in the body construction of most unmanned aerial vehicles. Composite Engineering’s BQM-167 Skeeter target drone, which is currently in production, utilizes the latest CFRP technology in its construction.
The UCLASS Sea Ghost – Lockheed Martin, the global security and aerospace company, is currently in competition for the U.S. Navy’s unmanned carrier combat contract along with Boeing, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman. Lockheed Martin has been developing the Sea Ghost, an Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS) drone. The company released a concept image in June 2012 that gave a glimpse of the outside of the aircraft. It depicts a sleek, blended-wing UAV. While Lockheed Martin remains tight-lipped about the inside of the aircraft, the company says the Sea Ghost draws on its work on several Navy programs, including the Joint Strike Fighter F-35C and the RQ-170 Sentinel Unmanned Aircraft System.
The Sea Ghost is a tailless flying wing that’s built similarly to the miniature B-2 stealth bomber. The majority of the B-2 is made out of a carbon-graphite composite material that is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. It absorbs a significant amount of radar energy.
Due to the nature of the competition, Lockheed Martin has not finalized or disclosed specific details about the design or manufacturing of the Sea Ghost, nor would it reveal the exact use of composites. “All we can disclose at the time is that the U.S. Navy contract calls for a more stealth and lightweight unmanned combat aircraft,” says a Lockheed Martin spokesperson.
In December, a Navy spokesperson said the UCLASS program was delayed until mid-2013. However, the Navy still hopes to have unmanned aircraft on carrier decks by 2020.