View Full Version : Frigate hosts latest trials for unmanned helo

06-27-2009, 03:48 PM
By Gidget Fuentes - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Jun 27, 2009 8:49:45 EDT

SAN DIEGO — The sight of a helicopter flying off the deck of a Navy ship usually doesn’t rate a second glance — except when it is flying without a pilot, or a cockpit.

That was the case when the frigate McInerney in late April hosted the MQ-8B, an unmanned helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and better known as Fire Scout, for the drone’s second series of test flights aboard a Navy ship.

Testers are evaluating the program through August aboard the ship, a final step before the program can become operational. Fire Scout is slated to deploy aboard McInerney for the ship’s next counternarcotics mission later this year, according to Northrop Grumman.

“Operational evaluation is the big event we have been pointing at for years,” said Michael Fuqua, Northrop Grumman’s business development manager for tactical unmanned systems in San Diego. “It’s pretty rigorous testing.”

Technical evaluation is continuing until the program shifts to operational evaluation this summer ahead of its scheduled initial operating capability by September.

“It’s still a developmental program until we get to IOC,” Fuqua said.

Fire Scout’s recent flights aboard McInerney follow approach and landing exercises aboard the amphibious transport dock Nashville at sea last year. The drone was supposed to be tested aboard littoral combat ships, but because of delays to the LCS program, Fire Scout testing was shifted to the existing ships. Plans remain for initial operational test and evaluation aboard an LCS by 2011, according to Northrop Grumman.

In February, the Navy awarded the company a $40 million contract, the last of three low-rate initial production buys to purchase a total of three Fire Scouts equipped with electro-optical payloads by March 2011.

It also includes three ground control stations, three light Harpoon grids, three common automatic recovery systems — small minidecks where the aircraft launches and recovers — and six portable electronic display devices.

The Navy’s fiscal 2010 budget seeks money for five additional Fire Scouts.

The four-bladed Fire Scout will be used primarily for anti-submarine, mine and surface warfare missions. Its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities mean it can support special operations, maritime interdiction and evacuation missions at sea or inland, Fuqua said.

The Navy plans to buy as many as 168 Fire Scouts when it moves into full-rate production, with five to 10 aircraft arriving in the fleet annually, Fuqua said.

While designed and planned with the LCS in mind, Fuqua said, Fire Scout could operate from other ships, including frigates and destroyers.

“The concept is to be fully employed in a composite squadron with H-60s,” he said. It’s also being eyed to operate from the Coast Guard’s national security cutters.
Compact but ‘reliable’

Fire Scout, built at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Moss Point, Miss., is equipped with three radios and a tactical common data link, carries a 600-pound payload and can be equipped with additional electronic systems or weapons pods. Powered by well-tested Rolls-Royce engines and equipped with simple auxiliary power units and many helicopter parts already in the supply system, “it’s hugely reliable,” Fuqua said.

The helicopter is designed to give strike group commanders a set of eyes and ears — and perhaps weapons — that can fly as far as 125 miles from a ship. It can fly up to 15,000 feet and loiter over an area for eight hours to find, track and mark targets, and it’s also designed to relay communications.

At nearly 9½ feet tall, it isn’t an imposing aircraft. Its wings fold to fit into a C-130 Hercules aircraft, be packed into a truck trailer or craned onto a ship.

Tucked under its bulbous nose is a pod carrying multiple electronics and sensors, including a forward-looking infrared radar and an advanced BRITE Star long-range targeting system.

The aircraft is designed to accommodate other systems depending on the mission.

“The modular payload is the key,” Fuqua said. “It’s plug-and-play.”

He said Fire Scout will “complement” the Navy’s manned helicopters, which perform missions ranging from combat search-and-rescue and deliveries to submarine hunting. With the addition of advanced identification systems, “we’ll get into the wide-area search business,” Fuqua added.

It also will let commanders send the pilotless aircraft on “the dull, the dirty and the dangerous,” said Fuqua, a retired helicopter pilot who once flew 2,000 feet above Somalia’s embattled capital city, Mogadishu, and the port city of Kismayu in 1992 to take official photographs.

“Helicopter guys do a lot of flying just looking for stuff,” he said. “You don’t need anyone in the cockpit doing that.”

The hub of Fire Scout is a ground control station, a set of monitors and consoles that eventually will be designed small enough to fit into a laptop computer, Fuqua said. Whether pilots, other officers or sailors will “fly” the aircraft isn’t clear yet.

But Fuqua said he expects some excitement from the fleet, noting the unmanned system received “a very enthusiastic response” from sailors so far. “They understand the complementary nature” of Fire Scout, he said. http://www.navytimes.com/news/2009/06/navy_fire_scout_062709w/