The Nite Panther Program was aimed at providing quick-reaction, prototype, standoff battlefield surveillance systems for immediate operational use to support US forces in Vietnam. The system included daylight TV and low light level TV (LLLTV) cameras, a KB-10A still camera, an infrared illuminator, a telemetry system with distance measuring equipment (DME), X- and C-band radar transponders, and a laser rangefinder. Two 40-gallon self-sealing fuel tanks for extra range were also provided, along with armor for the engine and some additional components. The complete system included a jeep-mounted control station and a modified shipboard control station.
In January 1968, the Advaned Research Projects Agency's (ARPA; now known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA) Advanced Sensors Office (ARPA-ASO) established the Nite Gazelle Program, seeking to modify a US Navy QH-50 umanned helicopter to carry advanced sensors and weapons. Shortly after that ARPA-ASO established the Nite Panther program in response to an urgent request from US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) for assistance in providing real-time battlefield reconnaissance to US Marines stationed at Khe Sanh. As a result, some of the early Nite Gazelle work was directly applicable to the Nite Panther program, a 30-day quick reaction change program.
The modified QH-50Ds used for both Nite Panther and Nite Gazelle were Navy-owned vehicles bailed to ARPA. Some of the vehicles were from existing Navy inventories, while others were fresh off the production line. As a result, the Naval Air Systems Command acted as ARPA's agent for modification and testing of the vehicles for both programs. All modifications and some initial tests were conducted at the Gyrodyne facility on Long Island, New York. Close coordination of this activity was maintained by the resident Naval officer at the Gyrodyne plant. Additional tests were frequently conducted at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland, where the local Gyrodyne facility was used to support the effort.
The subsequent performance of the system in an operational environment was excellent, despite all 3 Nite Panther vehicles being reported to have been lost. The final field report from the Marine project officer stated that "The NITE PANTHER Program proved that a helicopter drone is an excellent vehicle for real-time battlefield surveillance and target acquisition, and for controlling supporting arms fire." While scientific and technical data were not a goal of the program, the platform-oriented gross technical data were obtained. Firstly, it was demonstrated that the QH-50 helicopter was a sufficiently stable platform so that stabilized optics were not necessary under most flight conditions. Secondly, it was shown that the vehicle could be accurately positioned and navigated at all times using the information available from DME and TV systems. Lastly, however, it was determined that a more reliable vehicle would have to be developed in order to provide a true operational capability." The success of Nite Panther provided compelling reasons to continue the development of the Nite Gazelle system.
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