By DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader
NASHUA — An $8.9 million contract is small potatoes to a company the size of BAE, but when the contract is to develop technology for use in unmanned aircraft, aka drones, the sky’s the limit.The Navy recently announced an $8,934,898 award to the locally based Information and Electronic Systems division of BAE for development of magnetic detectors that will be deployed with air-launched drones to spot submarines in deep ocean water.
The contract is for research and development that will likely result in prototypes. If the work gets the Pentagon’s seal of approval, BAE could benefit from millions more in contracts to actually manufacture and deliver the device, known as a magnetic anomaly detector, or MAD, for years to come.
“This is not a lot of money for BAE Systems, but it will grow into a fairly substantial sum if the program devices are bought in large numbers,” said Loren B. Thompson, CEO of the Lexington Institute and a long-time adviser to high-tech companies, the federal government and foundations.
A BAE spokesman declined comment on the project, announced in typically low-key fashion by the Office of Naval Research in an undecipherable Jan. 17 Web notice alluding to “high altitude anti-submarine warfare systems for the P-8A unmanned targeting air system.”The P-8A is a large, high-altitude maritime patrol jet that’s equipped with flying torpedos. But it needs help targeting those torpedoes at objects that could be 30,000 feet away and beneath the ocean. That’s where BAE’s magnetic detector technology comes in.
“A MAD instrument detects minute variations in the Earth’s magnetic field,” said John Keller, editor at IntelligentAerospace.com, a PennWell Corp. source, based in Nashua. “A submerged submarine represents a mass of ferromagnetic material that creates a detectable disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field.”Small drones carrying a MAD payload would be deployed from the P-8A aircraft to fly just above the ocean surface and relay intelligence back to the mother ship.“My understanding is that BAE is going to be responsible primarily for the payload (the MAD),” said Keller. “They might be building the drone itself, but I don’t know if that would make sense.”
What the Nashua operation does is mainly electronics, so they are definitely building the sensor and the computer logic that will allow it to operate on the drone.
”The financial opportunities for the state’s largest manufacturing company are amplified by the potentially disposable nature of the drone and its payload.No one at the Navy or BAE would confirm it, but Keller believes the drone and the MAD on board will be “one and done.”
“My guess is that it would be a one-way trip,” he said. “It would search until it ran out of fuel, and then fall into the ocean.”
Anti-submarine warfare, a mainstay of the Cold War, is back in vogue, according to Thompson.“Submarine detection went into a lull when the Cold War ended,” he said, “but now is becoming more important as China is pushing its naval forces into the Pacific, and other countries like Iran and Pakistan are acquiring very quiet, diesel-electric submarines.”