Navy to Test Northrop Grumman’s Robotic Helicopter

1/28/09Follow @bvbigelow

It has taken roughly 10 years, but a robotic helicopter created in San Diego by Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) is finally nearing a critical test phase for the U.S. Navy.

The unmanned aircraft, known as the Fire Scout, looks unremarkable, except for the fact that it has no windows. It is based on a small civilian helicopter, the Schweizer Model 333, and New York-based Schweizer Aircraft supplies the basic airframe.

But the electronics inside the gray helicopter are another story. Known in the military bureaucracy as a VUAS, or Vertical Unmanned Aircraft System, the Fire Scout is intended primarily for maritime reconnaissance and for “situational awareness” just beyond the edges of a Naval battle group. It also has a laser to pinpoint targets for the Navy’s laser-guided missiles and bombs. The robotic helicopter is designed to take off and land autonomously, fly as far as 110 nautical miles (about 126.6 statute miles), and operate continuously for 8 hours.

The Fire Scout and USS McInerney

The Fire Scout and USS McInerney

When I noticed the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, MD, recently awarded a $40 million follow-on order to make three more Fire Scouts, I decided to ask Northrop for an update on the aircraft’s progress.

After completing a crucial series of tests in 2006, the Fire Scout is scheduled to undergo a technical evaluation aboard the guided missile frigate U.S.S. McInerney in the next few months. “The Navy wants to see how wind affects the aircraft and how it performs with the ship at sea,” says John VanBrabant, who heads business development for the V-UAS (Vertical Unmanned Aircraft System) group at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in San Diego.

To appreciate what this means, VanBrabant says the tests conducted in January, 2006, showed the helicopter’s electronics can land the Fire Scout autonomously on a moving Navy warship that was operating off the coast of Maryland. The robotic … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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