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 helicopter must adjust to the ship’s pitching, rolling, deck as it descends for a landing.

The landings relied on technology developed by Sierra Nevada of Sparks, NV, that uses a millimeter-wave RF system to transmit data from the ship’s navigation system and accelerometers to the helicopter. The Fire Scout made nine landings over two days—and none of the landings were more than 15 inches apart.

Fire Scout Scenario

Fire Scout Scenario

Those tests, however, were aboard the Nashville, a big ship the Navy calls an amphibious transport dock. The frigate McInerney is a smaller and lighter warship that represents a bigger challenge for autonomous landings. After the technical evaluation is completed off the coast of Florida, VanBrabant says the Navy plans a final series of operational evaluations aboard the McInerney.

“This summer will be the pinnacle of testing, in which the Navy takes the unmanned system to sea and operates as if they’re on a regular operation,” VanBrabant says. If those trials prove successful, VanBrabant says the Navy plans to deploy a Fire Scout aboard the McInerney this fall.

The Navy’s recent $40 million order calls for Northrop Grumman to deliver three more Fire Scouts and related equipment. They will be the 10th, 11th and 12th robotic helicopters to be produced by Northrop Grumman. Van Brabant estimates the Navy has spent roughly $400 million on development since 1999, when work on the unmanned helicopter began. Now, after so much time has passed and work has been done, he says, “We’re very eager to get the aircraft out to the fleet.”

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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