MOSS POINT, Mississippi — If you want an industry firmly entrenched in the future, it’s hard to pick one better than unmanned systems. And if you want a leader in the field, Northrop Grumman is at the front of the high-tech pack.
Northrop Grumman, which builds some of the largest and most capable unmanned aerial systems in the world, established a key production site in Moss Point, eight years ago. It was a significant addition to a region that’s highly active in the robotic field.
“We have an internationally recognized unmanned systems center in this community,” said George Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation. “The growth, investment and future job creation we believe will come from this facility is significant.”
The prognosis for the future for the Moss Point facility, a tenant of the Jackson County Aviation Technology Park with direct access to Trent Lott International Airport, is a continuation of the steady stream of work.
Unmanned aircraft represent one of the hottest fields in aerospace. The total worldwide market will increase from $7 billion to $51 billion by 2018, according to a 2012 study by WinterGreen Research. There’s a potential $92 billion civilian market for UAVs over the next decade. The FAA forecasts 10,000 commercially operated unmanned aircraft could be active within five years.
Open since 2006, the 101,000-square-foot Northrop Grumman center does assembly work on the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, as well as the several variants of the high-flying Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, including the Navy’s Triton and a version for NATO.
There are 70 to 80 workers at Moss Point and employment has been “very steady over the years,” said Northrop spokesman Warren Comer. That consistent employment level has been praised by local and county elected officials and economic developers.
Freeland said Northrop’s $30 million investment in the Unmanned Systems Center and the jobs it creates enhance the economic diversity in a county and region known for shipbuilding and petrochemical operations. He knew when Northrop Grumman first decided to put a facility in Moss Point that it was a game-changer for a county that had gone through the demise of its older industries, like paper-making.
“Diversification is critical to any successful economic development,” said Freeland, who sees unmanned systems as the future of aviation. The success of the Moss Point center is putting a spotlight on the workforce and business environment, and that bodes well for future aerospace activities. Indeed, Northrop Grumman officials in 2008 marveled that Jackson County workers surpassed expectations given the normal learning curve. That became well known within the company.
Work done at Moss Point is mostly assembly, Comer said, and “for the Fire Scout, it’ s final assembly.”
Workers have produced 28 of the earlier MQ-8B version of the aircraft and delivered them to the Navy and is in production with the larger MQ-8C Fire Scout.
The Navy has ordered 14 aircraft, so far. Comer said six are going through final assembly at Moss Point.
“Once that first aircraft is delivered, we expect to deliver those incrementally about every month or two after that, like car production,” Comer said. The first aircraft could be delivered in the next couple of months, pending the government signing off.
The MQ-8C is based on a commercial Bell Helicopter that is built in Canada, then flown to Bell’s facility in Ozark, Ala., where it is prepared for modification into an unmanned aircraft system. After the manned flight equipment is removed, the helicopter is shipped to Moss Point, where workers fit it with the unmanned systems architecture. They test the subsystems as they install them.
The completed MQ-8C aircraft are transported from Moss Point to Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, Calif., where they are flight tested.
According to Northrop Grumman, the MQ-8C Fire Scout is designed to fly twice as long and has three times the payload capacity of the MQ-8B variant. The larger helicopter has additional fuel tanks and an upgraded engine enabling it to fly up to 12 hours or carry up to 2,600 pounds, the company said.
“That aircraft flies longer, it goes farther and allows the Navy to add capability with little cost,” said Comer. “It’s a very capable aircraft.”
The first Fire Scouts used Schweizer 333 helicopter airframes, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The larger Bell 407 is widely used by law enforcement, television stations, hospitals and to transport offshore oil platform crews. More than 1,000 of the helicopters have been built with over 3 million flight hours accumulated.
The Fire Scout, its systems and equipment, has proven itself in Afghanistan, Comer said. Fire Scouts also are flown on surveillance missions from Navy frigates. One of the first Fire Scouts aboard a ship helped in an at-sea drug bust.
Comer said there is a good potential for the Navy to purchase more Fire Scouts. “The Navy’s plan is to buy 28, and we are at 14 right now. If they change over the program of record, then they can have up to 96.”
Northrop Grumman is producing three versions of the Global Hawk and Moss Point builds the aircraft’s center fuselage, which is transported to the company’s primary production facility in Palmdale, Calif., for final assembly and testing.
The Global Hawk, NATO AGS version and the Navy’s Triton are very similar but have some customization. All three can fly up to 30 hours a mission for 12,000 nautical miles at altitudes up to 65,000 feet.
“We could get a production contract for three more Block 30 aircraft from Air Force by the end of year,” Comer said.
The NATO version of Global Hawk is used by the Alliance for ground surveillance and is based on the Block 40 that the Air Force uses. “It has a different set of radar in it that allows them to see targets on the ground,” Comer said.
Moss Point is working now on the first of five of the NATO aircraft, the newest platform Northrop manufactures. Comer said each aircraft takes about two years to build and each one is at the Moss Point facility for about six months during the process.
The third variant is Triton, the Navy’s version of Global Hawk for maritime surveillance missions. Three have been built so far, including one owned by Northrop, and flight tests recently began. “The Navy is going to purchase up to 68 aircraft,” said Comer. “It’s really the future of Moss Point.”
Triton can fly missions up to 24 hours, covering more than 2.7 million square miles to provide a detailed picture of vessels in the oceans and littoral areas.
Comer said the aircraft could be operational by 2017 and then go into full production, with three or more being produced every year depending on the Navy’s requirements.
“It would mean steady employment at Moss Point,” he said. “We feel confident that we’ve got enough work going on there that the workforce is going to see some steady work over the next year.”
— Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor