British Explore Maritime UAS From Ships

 - January 16, 2014, 10:38 AM
This is an impression of an unmanned version of the Polish W-4 helicopter. AgustaWestland is exploring the concept. (Rendering: AgustaWestland)

The UK Royal Navy (RN) deployed its first maritime unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) this week, when an Insitu Scan Eagle system was added to RFA Cardigan Bay, which is supporting the EU anti-piracy patrols off Somalia. The service is also planning a rotary-wing UAS trial on a ship later this year, having contracted with AgustaWestland for a concept capability demonstration (CCD).

Boeing’s Insitu subsidiary is providing two Scan Eagle systems equipped with EO/IR video sensors to the Royal Navy under a contractor-owned, contractor-operated contract signed last June, and lasting through March 2015. The Navy is providing the tasking and sortie generation, said Cdr. Bow Wheaton, the maritime aviation capability officer at RN headquarters. He told AIN during a media briefing that the Scan Eagle would be launched and recovered on the ship’s helicopter platform. The Navy hopes to exploit the endurance of the UAV to extend the ship’s surveillance coverage, he added. Insitu will provide 600 hours of flight per month under the contract. The second system will be deployed on HMS Somerset, a frigate.

The rotary-wing UAS CCD contract was issued to AgustaWestland by the UK Minstry of Defence six months ago and is worth just over $3 million. The company is modifying a PZL SW-4 light helicopter for the trial. It has already flown at PZL’s Swidnik base, but with a safety pilot. AgustaWestland bought the Polish company in 2010, having previously held a minority share and tasked it to provide fuselage structures for the AW139. Before securing the MoD contract, AgustaWestland had already embarked on its own technology demonstration of optionally manned helicopters, named Project SOLO and using the SW-4.

Cdr. Wheaton said that land-based trials of the unmanned helicopter in the UK would start this summer, followed by deployment to sea on a Type 23 frigate. “We want to investigate the control software that is key to safe operation, and explore the trade-offs between lighter and heavier payloads, and the helicopter’s endurance,” he told AIN.

An AgustaWestland spokesman told AIN that in addition to surveillance, other potential applications include maritime surveillance and hydrography. The CCD would provide a technology roadmap and a whole-life cost model, to assist with a potential future acquisition program.