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General Atomics Poised to Launch Its Aircraft Carrier Technology

The San Diego company that builds the un & #173;manned Predator armed re & #173;con & #173;naissance aircraft continues to push the technology envelope for the national defense industry.

From its 150,000-square-foot facility in Rancho Bernardo, General Atomics is working to harness electromagnetic energy to launch aircraft from next-generation carriers, fire electromagnetic cannons from ships and retrofit existing vessels to keep the aging fleet viable.

The Navy recently accepted General Atomics’ electromagnetic catapult to replace the steam-powered launchers, which date back to the 1950s and are used by navies around the world.

The new catapult design is being developed for the next-generation, Gerald R. Ford-class CVN-78 carrier, which is scheduled to be ready for military operations in 2015.

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Company officials say the catapult could be implemented for all future aircraft carriers , which will position General Atomics as the primary supplier for the technology.

“It will be several hundred million dollars worth of business on each carrier,” said Ron Kunz, program manager for the company’s Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System. “They build carriers every four to five years.

“It’s a big deal businesswise.”

The prototype now goes for a second round of testing at the Naval Air Engineering Station in Lakehurst, N.J.

“This is practically a copy of what will ultimately go in the boat,” Kunz said.

As part of the new system, an energy storage subsystem holds the power for the catapult in a series of turning rotors (not the large propulsion rotors).

“The power comes from the ship and is stored in the rotors,” Kunz said. “We reduce the rotational speed and use that power to ultimately launch the aircraft.”


Cost-Effective System

The electromagnetic system will lower operating costs, requiring 80 people instead of 120 people to run the system, and expands the types of aircraft that the carrier can launch. The design can handle all of the “contemplated” aircraft through 2050, Kunz said.

The catapult was designed in San Diego and may be ready before the CVN-78 carrier is actually deployed.

“We don’t contemplate a lot of design changes,” said Kunz. “We may do some fine tuning.”

That would be good news for the Navy, which is under pressure to modernize its fleet while reigning in costs.

During the next testing phase in New Jersey, which will be done with a full-scale launcher, technicians in San Diego will be monitoring the results to make sure the tests are on track with their modeling.

“People employed here are keeping an eye on this,” said Carl Fisher, director of General Atomics’ Business Development Advanced Technologies Group.

If the tests go smoothly and the deployment is successful, the General Atomics catapult could be the standard on every aircraft carrier going forward.

“We have a number of subcontractors advancing state-of-the-art technologies, like the most powerful linear motors in the world, the most energy dense generator in the world,” said Fisher. “We’re pushing the state of the art, but comfortably.

“It’s a pretty exciting time,” he added. “We certainly have the Navy’s attention. They remind us continuously of the importance of getting it to them on time.”


General Atomics is adapting a similar technology to build an electromagnetic cannon capable of firing a shot 250 miles at seven times the speed of sound.

The so-called Navy “rail gun” was designed in San Diego and is being tested at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, a Navy lab in Dahlgren, Va. At the end of January, the cannon fired a projectile with a record-breaking 10 megajoules of muzzle energy. A joule is one watt of power radiated for 1 second. The gun’s muzzle energy is 10 million times that.

It has 10 times the firing range of the current 5-inch Mark 45 gun used on Navy destroyers.

The Navy hopes to have a prototype in action by 2018 , and have the technology deployed in the field by 2020.


New Landing Equipment

General Atomics is also developing new landing equipment for aircraft carriers that can be retrofitted on existing Nimitz-class carriers.

The Advanced Arresting Gear is designed to replace the current hydraulic arresting gear on carrier decks that halt planes with cross-deck cables that snag a plane’s tail hook. The machinery that controls and operates the arresting wires will be replaced by a new design.

Like the new catapult, the new landing machinery will require less manpower to operate, which will allow the Navy to meet its goals of reducing personnel on ships.

“It’s critical to get this out on time. It’s not just a ship, it’s really a national strategy, which is why it’s so exciting,” Fisher said. “I’m not sure Ron will agree, though.”

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