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The Pentagon has approved the requirement for an “endurance upgrade” to the U.S. Navy’s Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system, with a larger air vehicle to provide increased payload and range to support special operations forces.
After also evaluating the Boeing A160T Hummingbird and Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max unmanned helicopters, the program office has recommended using the Bell 407 airframe, Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s Fire Scout program manager, said Aug. 17 at the AUVSI International show in Washington.
The program office’s recommendation has yet to be endorsed by Navy leadership, but Northrop and Bell are already jointly developing an unmanned version of the civil Bell 407 light turbine helicopter, called the Fire-X, which first flew in December.
“The MQ-8C endurance upgrade package started as a joint urgent operational need statement from Special Operations Command. The requirement was validated [on Aug. 16] by the office of the secretary of defense,” Smith says.
“Our recommendation is to go with the 407 airframe, based on the time frame limitations,” he says. The requirement is to develop the larger MQ-8C within 24 months, for deployment in 2014, with plans to acquire 28 air vehicles over three years.
Plans to arm the basic MQ-8B Fire Scout, which is based on a Schweizer 333 helicopter, also have been approved. The rapid deployment capability program calls for fielding within 18 months, possibly on the Littoral Combat Ship, Smith says.
The Navy has selected a laser-guided 70 mm rocket, BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), as the initial weapon because it has existing safety approval for deployment on ships.
“Northrop Grumman will conduct a demonstration of Raytheon’s Griffin later this month, and we would like to become weapon-agnostic,” he says. Griffin is a 35-lb. tube-launched laser-guided mini-missile.
The Navy, meanwhile, has confirmed that an MQ-8B that went down over Libya on June 21 while operating from the USS Halyburton was “lost to enemy fire.” Communications and radar contact was lost while the aircraft was flying below cloud cover in an area where other allied aircraft had already come under heavy anti-aircraft fire.
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On Dec. 10, the Northrop Grumman/Bell Helicopter Fire-X demonstrator achieved first flight in Yuma, Arizona, just days after arriving there for flight testing, according to officials on the program team.
This is a major step toward the two teammates entering the evolving and potentially lucrative market of unmanned rotorcraft for cargo carriage or intelligence collection. Northrop approached Bell and crafted the jointly funded project in early 2010 with the goal of flying within a year.
Cathy Ferrie, director of Bell’s Xworx rapid prototyping division, says “From initial concept to flying a prototype was extremely quick.”
The aircraft, which also retains the ability to be piloted, was ferried to Yuma two weeks ago from Bell’s Xworx facility in Arlington, Texas, says Charles Shepard, director of technology business development for the rapid prototyping unit.
The Fire-X demonstrator, built on the commercial Bell 407 platform, was modified at Xworx with computers, actuators and other systems from prime contractor Northrop’s MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. “Our philosophy was to be minimally invasive,” says Bob Davis, Northrop’s director of business development for air and land advanced concepts. “The physical elements of the aircraft between the cyclic and flight control surfaces have to be removed for it to be piloted,” he adds.
Following its arrival in Yuma days ago, the linkages were removed –—thus “demanning” the aircraft — and electric actuators connected up for unmanned flight.
The initial flight was intended to test the vehicle management system’s flight control software which was previously only ground tested in Northrop’s Rancho Bernardo simulation facility in California.
Initial flight test objectives covered basic handling qualities and safety-of-flight assessments. “We want to demonstrate that we have not changed the handling qualities and that it can be flown safely and reliably, Davis says. “Over time we will develop a reliability database and understand what the nuances will be.”
The flight test plan will cover “a handful of flights” by year end, and “we will do limited unmanned aircraft systems demonstrations, but not using the external sling load. We will just be carrying cargo in the cabin,” he adds.
The Fire-X flight occurred too late to capture the interest of the U.S. Marine Corps, which recently issued contracts to unmanned rotorcraft competitors Boeing and Lockheed Martin/Kaman for demonstrations of their systems in Afghanistan. Boeing’s A160T Hummingbird and the Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max, will be used to provide small supply loads to forward-based Marines there.
John Garrison, Bell CEO, says that the first flight is a major step toward proving the capability of the Fire-X configuration, a requirement for possibly garnering a similar demonstration sponsored by the Pentagon.
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On Dec. 3, Boeing announced that U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has awarded the company a $29.9 million contract for Cargo Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Services to support the U.S. Marine Corps. Boeing will provide two A160T Hummingbird unmanned vehicles, three ground control stations, spares, training, and support.
The A160T aircraft designated for the contract are near completion on the Boeing production line that started up in March at the company’s facility in Mesa, Arizona.
This government-owned, contractor-operated contract is the first for Hummingbirds from the company-funded production line. It calls for a period of pre-deployment operations at a military facility in the continental United States, followed by options for a six-month deployment to support Operation Enduring Freedom.
Vic Sweberg, Unmanned Airborne Systems director for Boeing, said “We look forward to working with NAVAIR and the Marines to provide this important capability to warfighters on the front lines.” Sweberg also said “The A160T has proven its ability to autonomously deliver cargo to forward operating bases in austere conditions in a demonstration setting, and we are confident in its ability to do the same in battlefield conditions.”
While under contract from the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Boeing demonstrated last March the A160T’s ability to deliver at least 2,500 pounds of cargo from one simulated forward-operating base to another base 75 nautical miles away in less than the required six hours. The simulated mission delivered 1,250-pound sling loads over two 150-nautical-mile round trips, with the A160T operating autonomously on a preprogrammed mission.
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Last Nov. 18, the Boeing Phantom Ray unmanned airborne system successfully completed low-speed taxi tests at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis.
Craig Brown, Phantom Ray program manager for Boeing, comments that the “Phantom Ray did exactly what it was supposed to do.” Brown also said “It communicated with the ground control station, received its orders and made its way down the runway multiple times, allowing us to assess its performance and monitor the advanced systems on board.”
The tests were the first for the Phantom Ray following its rollout ceremony in May. Boeing now will prepare Phantom Ray to travel to Edwards Air Force Base, California, on top of one of NASA’s modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. At Edwards, Phantom Ray will undergo high-speed taxi tests before making its first flight. The flight-test program will last approximately six months.
Dave Koopersmith, vice president, Advanced Boeing Military Aircraft stated that “The autonomous nature of this system is unique, so achieving this milestone speaks volumes about the technology and expertise of Boeing, the Phantom Works organization and the Phantom Ray team.”
Phantom Ray is designed to support potential missions that may include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; electronic attack; strike; and autonomous aerial refueling.
Boeing’s portfolio of unmanned airborne systems solutions includes the A160T Hummingbird, Integrator, ScanEagle, SolarEagle, Phantom Eye and Phantom Ray.