Lockheed Unveils Speed Racer UAS To Prove Digital Engineering

Skunk Works logo.
Credit: Skunk Works

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division said on Sept. 16 that it is developing and will fly a new unmanned aircraft system (UAS) called Speed Racer to validate that an internal digital engineering process called StarDrive can produce sophisticated flight vehicles faster and cheaper across the full range of the company’s product portfolio. 

The announcement comes against the backdrop of the Air, Space and Cyber conference, where U.S. Air Force leaders unveiled the “e-series” designation for digital engineering models of weapon systems, which is aimed at dramatically shortening the development cycle and cost of new aircraft and missiles. 

The Skunk Works concept for the Speed Racer follows the spirit of the e-series approach. The UAS will seek to demonstrate Lockheed’s readiness to participate in the Air Force’s favored new approach to weapons development, Skunk Works officials say. 

They declined to provide additional details about the configuration and schedule for Speed Racer, except to note that it may be incorrect to interpret the concept’s name as suggesting a high-speed or even supersonic jet. 

“I’ll tease that Speed Racer is an acronym. I can’t share [the acronym] right now, but it does not necessarily imply fast in Mach [number],” said Joe Pokora, Lockheed’s Speed Racer project manager. 

Another interpretation of the acronym’s meaning is the speed of development, which is historically a Skunk Works signature. The original, small team of Lockheed engineers assembled by Skunk Works founder Clarence “Kelly” Johnson in 1943 delivered the first prototype of the jet-powered XP-80 fighter—also known as “Lulu-Belle”—to testing only 143 days after the Army Air Corps signed the contract. Likewise, the first flight of the U-2 in August 1955 came less than nine months after the CIA launched the program. 

But aircraft development has grown more complex, with requirements for extreme levels of stealth, advanced power and thermal management systems, modern electronics and software-enabled applications. Thus, the company developed the StarDrive process, seeking to adapt commercial-based digital engineering practices to the defense industry. 

To be sure, Lockheed has used digital engineering practices in many cases before. The F-35 program even merged databases of engineering models and enterprise resource planning software to help manage the production system and supply chain, said John Clark, a Skunk Works vice president. In classified projects, the Skunk Works has also applied end-to-end digital engineering practices successfully, but those models stayed within those specific classified programs, Clark said.

By introducing the StarDrive, the Skunk Works hopes to expand such practices to new and existing products that require digital engineering across the company, he said.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.