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STARLite shines for Army on MQ-1C Sky Warrior

Northrop GrummanAN/ZPY-1 STARLite Small Tactical Radar Lightweight

Northrop Grumman Corporation officials were talking up their 65 pound, 1.2 ft.
3 AN/ZPY-1 STARLite Small Tactical Radar – Lightweight at the Navy League’s recent Sea-Air-Space Expo… and with some reason.

Having summarily displaced the General Atomics LYNX radar as the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) payload aboard the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle – the Service’s Predator-derived Extended Range Multi-Purpose (ER/MP) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) – the STARLite SAR / Ground Moving Target Identification (SAR/GMTI) payload is providing the Service with an unprecedented capability in a small package. 

STARLite, derived from Northrop Grumman's experience in fielding the larger AN/ZPQ-1 Tactical Endurance Synthetic Aperture Radar (TESAR), was developed by the company’s Electronic Systems Sector under a $70 million contract awarded in April 2008 by the U.S. Army Communications and Electronics Command’s Project Manager Robotics and Unmanned Sensors (PM RUS).

Michael Pefley, Director of Business Development and Strategic Planning within the Electronic Systems  Land and Self-Protection Systems Division tells Defense Systems Journal that initial STARLite payloads were built for  the program in less than a year and that system deliveries and performance to date have exceeded expectations.  Pefley notes that delivery of all 33 payloads from the April 2008 award are anticipated by the end of calendar year 2010.  He adds that based on a successful Milestone 3 Review on April 15th, the Army has ordered 40 additional STARLite units.

Capability & Operations

The STARLite payload provides two SAR modes: Strip and Spot.

  • In Strip mode, the radar imagery is either parallel to the aircraft flight vector or along a specified ground path independent of the aircraft flight path.
  • In Spot mode, the radar produces a high- resolution image at a specific geographic patch.

In the GMTI mode, the radar provides dismounted (vehicle) moving target locations overlaid on a digital map. Northrop Grumman notes that a Maritime Moving Target Indicator (MMTI) mode, which performs a similar function for targets over water, is also in development , as is an effort to double the effective range of the STARLite radar by increasing the antenna length.

STARLite, which draws less than 750W of power and is designed to be compatible with the Army’s standard AAI-provided One System ground control station, has also flown aboard the Army’s rotary-wing MQ-8B Fire Scout FCS Class IV UAS.  For both the Grey Eagle and the Fire Scout – and perhaps even for the PTDS, the STARLite provides mission critical tactical reconnaissance, including all-weather and wide area surveillance. 

In firsts for a system of this size and weight, STARLite has demonstrated dismounted moving target identification (DMTI) and a level of coherent change detection capability that allow the radar to make a meaningful contribution to pinpointing enemy IED emplacements. 

Looking Ahead

Pefley notes that while it may be a challenge for STARLite to make significant inroads into the existing PREDATOR/REAPER fleet, Northrop Grumman has briefed the Air Force, the Navy and the Coast Guard on the payload’s capabilities and continues to engage.

Looking forward, based in part on the small size and decreasing unit cost of the STARLite payload, Pefley notes that Northrop Grumman and its UAS customers are looking at the potential application of the STARLite to smaller tactical UAS.

Indeed, Pefley notes that Northrop Grumman had directed significant internal investment into downsizing the weight and footprint of the STARLite payload.  Immediate targets for such a miniaturized STARLite: the RQ-7 SHADOW C tactical unmanned aircraft system (TUAS) that the Army has on the drawing board, and Northrop Grumman’s KillerBee-derived BAT family of UAS.