San Diego Union-Tribune January 19, 2006
Unmanned copter looks shipshape
Pilotless aircraft developed in San Diego lands on moving warship off Maryland coast - a first
By Bruce V. Bigelow
In a series of flight tests this week, a robotic helicopter developed in San Diego landed aboard a Navy warship while it was steaming off the Maryland coast near Patuxent River.
The tests marked the first time an unmanned helicopter has landed aboard a moving Navy ship with no pilot controlling the aircraft, according to Northrop Grumman Corp. The Los Angeles defense contractor made the two Fire Scout helicopters used in the flight tests at its unmanned systems business in Rancho Bernardo.
The landings demonstrate that robotic aircraft could still become a valuable weapon for the Navy, which has yet to embrace unmanned aircraft with the same enthusiasm as the Army and Air Force.
The Predator unmanned plane, which was also developed in San Diego by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, has gained widespread praise for the role it has played in U.S. military operations in Iraq. Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk, also created in San Diego, has served more of a strategic role as a globe-girdling, high-altitude spy plane.
In the same vein, the Fire Scout could prove to be a major new source of revenue for Northrop Grumman, which plans to build a fleet of Fire Scouts at a new plant near Moss Point, Miss.
The Navy has recovered remote-controlled airplanes aboard its ships in the past, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web-based institute focused on defense, aerospace and national security issues.
"Back in the old days, 15 years ago, they caught them in nets," Pike said. "It was very undignified."
During the 1960s, the Navy also deployed hundreds of remote-controlled helicopters known as the DASH, or Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter. The unmanned helicopters landed on the decks of destroyers and other small ships with varying success, and funding was terminated in 1969.
But the autonomous landings reported yesterday represented a significant milestone, Pike said.
"One of the fundamental differences between Air Force pilots and Navy pilots is carrier landings," Pike said. One of the tricks to landing on a Navy ship, he added, is that a pilot must have good reflexes to adjust while the ship pitches and rolls.
A computer-controlled aircraft capable of tracking and adjusting itself in the same way during vertical landings could open new options and abilities for Navy ships and operations.
"Any demonstration at sea usually carries a lot of importance," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of a Virginia-based industry group for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. "It's usually scrutinized by all the maritime forces in the U.S., as well as NATO and other foreign entities."
Northrop Grumman has developed the Fire Scout to provide the Navy and Marine Corps with reconnaissance, situational awareness and precision targeting support. The robotic helicopter can provide electronic surveillance 110 knots, or roughly 126 miles, from its launch site.
The Navy has disclosed that a Fire Scout also fired two 2.75-inch diameter rockets in flight tests last summer, adding to the helicopter's capabilities.
Northrop Grumman is making four Fire Scouts for the Navy and eight for the Army under a development program. Boeing awarded Northrop a $115 million contract two years ago to develop the robotic aircraft as part of the U.S. Army's Future Combat System.
But Northrop also has been seeking a major contract from the Navy. As part of that process, the company has been competing with rivals such as the Eagle Eye HV-911, a tilt-wing rotor aircraft made by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc.
Bell won a contract in 2003 to begin work on the Eagle Eye for the U.S. Coast Guard. But Northrop's flight tests this week show the company has made substantial progress in refining the Fire Scout for shipboard operations.
The amphibious transport ship Nashville was maneuvering as fast as 17 mph in flight tests that were conducted Monday and Tuesday, a Northrop Grumman spokesman said yesterday.
In one series of test flights, a Fire Scout lifted off from shore at the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., and flew itself to the ship while transmitting flight data to a shore-based ground control station. Guidance was transferred to the ship's control station, and the helicopter made its first autonomous landing aboard the Nashville at 2:42 p.m. Monday.
The robotic helicopter made two additional landings on Monday. A second Fire Scout made six shipboard landings Tuesday. The tests were conducted by the Navy's Unmanned Aerial System program office and the Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle program.
The data from the ship-landing test will be valuable as Northrop Grumman moves to develop a second-generation Fire Scout for use by the Navy by 2007, said Doug Fronius, who oversees the Navy Fire Scout program for Northrop Grumman.
The company incorporated an existing helicopter airframe made by Schwizer Aircraft of Elmira, N.Y., in the Fire Scout's design, Fronius said.
"We believe the true innovative technology has to be in the avionics, software, communications links and payloads," Fronius said. "The airframe and propulsion technology has to be extremely robust and reliable technology."
Northrop awarded an $11 million contact in December to San Diego's Cubic Corp. to help develop a tactical common data link for the second-generation Fire Scout, known as the MQ-8B.
© Copyright 2006, Union-Tribune Publishing Co.