Navy investigates UAS crashes as programs move forward

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was updated April 23, 2012, to clarify information included on unmanned aircraft systems programs, and on April 24, 2012, to correct the type of ship the USS Simpson is.

The Navy is forging ahead with key unmanned aircraft systems programs while trying to get a firm handle on the nature of the problems that caused two of its Fire Scout UAS to crash in recent weeks, said a top Navy official.

The Navy has advanced its X-47B carrier-launched unmanned aircraft to flight testing and is working with the other services to refine a control system that can operate multiple unmanned aircraft, Rear Adm. William Shannon, program executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said April 17 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exhibition.

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The Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft is currently undergoing arrestor hook engagement and high-speed rolls at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., Shannon said.

UCAS-D is one of three major unmanned aircraft system efforts the Navy has under way, he said. The other two are the MQ-8 Fire Scout and the Common Control System.

Once the Northrop Grumman-built X-47B being tested for the UCAS-D program completes the flight tests, it is scheduled to undergo radio frequency testing to ensure that its systems will not be jammed or confused by the noisy radio environment of a carrier deck, Shannon said. Flight tests are planned for later this summer, he said.

The Navy already has tested the UCAS-D flight and landing software in a specially equipped F-18 Hornet. Although the aircraft was manned, it was able to successfully fly automated final landing approaches to aircraft carriers, Shannon said. Automated landing systems have existed for decades and are used on modern manned carrier aircraft, but the major difference between current radar-based systems and the UCAS’ system is that the latter is based on Global Positioning System data, he said.

Despite being deployed operationally at sea, the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter is still undergoing developmental and operational testing, Shannon said. The unmanned helicopters have been flying operationally in Afghanistan for eight months, where they have flown convoy security missions and have been responsible for detecting and interdicting the placement of improvised explosive devices, Shannon said.

The Fire Scout fleet is currently undergoing an evaluation after the crashes of two aircraft in recent weeks, Shannon said. The circumstances were very different for each aircraft, Shannon said. One incident involved a failed landing attempt at sea on the deck of the guided-missile frigate USS Simpson. The aircraft failed to establish a data link to allow it to land safely, so its operators allowed it to run out of fuel and ditched it in the ocean. The aircraft was then recovered intact and is now undergoing an evaluation.

The second Fire Scout was lost in Afghanistan a week after the first incident. Although little data is available at the moment on the incident, the aircraft was a complete loss after crashing, Shannon said. Both incidents seem unrelated, he said, but that will be determined by a board of inquiry. Another Fire Scout was lost in Libya in 2011 when it was shot down while supporting NATO combat operations, he said.

Progress is also being made on the MQ-8C Fire Scout, which is an urgent Navy requirement for a platform with greater endurance and payload capacity than the current MQ-8 variant. The Navy recently signed a contract with Northrop Grumman for the new version, which involves replacing the existing airframe with that of a Bell 407 helicopter. The larger airframe will increase the aircraft’s endurance from six hours to 14 hours, Shannon said. Although the new aircraft will have a completely different air frame, 95 percent of its avionics software will remain the same, he said.

While the Navy is moving ahead with its various UAS programs, it also is working to develop a single control system to manage them all through its Common Control System (CCS) effort. Although it is not a formal program, CCS is crucial to the service because of the need for operators to control multiple UAS platforms, Shannon said. Another goal is to provide a standardized, government-owned command and control framework instead of the variety of vendor-designed control systems that are currently available, he added.

The CCS is now undergoing tests, with developers writing 1,000 lines of new code for the system, Shannon said. The development process also used nearly one million lines of existing code, he said. CCS also is part of a wider joint DOD program for a single UAS command and control capability. All of the services are sharing information and working on their parts of the CCS program, he said.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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