U.S. Army and Navy To Jointly Explore Future Unmanned Helicopters

 - August 22, 2011, 5:00 AM
Northrop Grumman’s Fire-X unmanned helicopter program, using the Bell 407, is one of at least three candidates for future U.S. Army and Navy requirements.

The U.S. Army and Navy will coordinate their requirements for a future unmanned medium-range helicopter, officials said at the Unmanned Systems North America conference last week in Washington, D.C. Such has been the interest in unmanned VTOL systems that programs and requirements seem to have proliferated, leading to potentially duplicative and costly developments.

The Army has been defining a medium-range multi-purpose (MRMP) vertical-lift system for cargo transport and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Its recent request for information (RFI) calls for two selected vendors to demonstrate concepts in Fiscal Year 2013, one of which would be awarded an engineering and manufacturing development phase the following year.

But the Army has already agreed to operate three Boeing A160T Hummingbird unmanned helicopters in Afghanistan to demonstrate the Argus-IS 1.8 gigapixel, wide-area surveillance sensor, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Separately, the U.S. Marine Corps is evaluating the A160T against the Lockheed Martin K-Max as an unmanned, cargo-carrying helicopter. The winner will also be sent to Afghanistan on a test deployment.

Meanwhile, the Navy has been defining a medium-range, maritime, unmanned aircraft system (MRMUAS) as a follow-on to the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, which is based on the small Sikorsky-Schweizer 333 helicopter. A Navy official said the service wants “a longer range, longer endurance, higher payload vertical-lift system that will fly from cruiser destroyers.”

Eyeing that Navy requirement, Northrop Grumman last year unveiled the Fire-X system based on the Bell 407. Now designated MQ-8C Fire Scout, this system has already been recommended by the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) to meet an urgent requirement from U.S. Special Operations Command (Socom). Twenty-eight helicopters would be procured over the next three years for deployment from 2014, a Navy requirements official told the Unmanned Systems Conference.

However, a more senior Navy acquisition official cautioned that this strategy has not yet been cleared. But he did note that the air vehicle accounted for only about 15 percent of the Fire Scout system cost. It would make sense to avoid duplicating the “millions” of dollars the Pentagon has already spent on developing the software for ground control and precision landing of unmanned helicopters, he added.

The Army RFI for the MRM UAS calls for alternatives to be evaluated so that “components, subcomponents or technologies could be cooperatively and jointly developed to reduce total ownership cost.”