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Thu, Aug 17, 2006

Lightning II... Pilotless, Too?

Lockheed Explores Unmanned F-35 Concept

Pilots have heard for awhile that it's only a matter of time before computers completely replace humans at the controls of the most advanced aircraft... and Lockheed Martin appears to be taking that concept to a new level, with word the Bethesda, MD-based manufacturer is looking into an unmanned version of its upcoming F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

In a briefing Tuesday, Lockheed VP Frank Murno acknowledged the idea has been in the works for two years... and while he provided few specifics on the program, Murno did say such a plane could be built as a hybrid -- manned by a pilot for some missions, and operated remotely for others.

The Washington Post reports by announcing the program, Lockheed is signaling a move toward producing drone aircraft, after years of maintaining unmanned planes diminish the need for more expensive manned fighters... thus allowing its rivals to get a head start in the UAV market.

"When you think about unmanned combat systems, I think about Boeing," said executive director John E. Pike.

While acknowledging an unmanned F-35 variant would give Lockheed a truly unique entry into the UAV market, many analysts still believe the manufacturer has a tough road ahead in that market.

"Lockheed is playing catch-up and acknowledging that unmanned vehicles is a trend that is not going to go away," said analyst Loren B. Thompson Jr., who also consults for Lockheed. "It's going to be hard to penetrate a market where competitors are already established."

As Aero-News reported, Lockheed also recently unveiled its P-175 "Polecat" high altitude, unmanned aerial demonstrator -- an aircraft that could one day rival the successful General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator series -- in another step towards asserting its presence in the unmanned aircraft market.

Like the Polecat, the unmanned F-35 is being developed at Lockheed's famed "Skunk Works" facility in California.



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