Autonomous Fire Scout UAV Lands on Ship



Jan 18, 2006

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The Navy’s Unmanned Aerial System program office, and the Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle (VTUAV) Program completed a major developmental milestone this week as the VTUAV system completed nine autonomous landings aboard the USS NASHVILLE (LPD 13), operating in the sea range off Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. One air vehicle performed the initial tests with three landings on 16 January, and a second air vehicle was launched on 17 January to complete the testing. This is the first time a major defense autonomous UAV acquisition program has completed a landing aboard a fleet vessel.

On day one of the testing at 11:51 a.m., the green light was established as all systems were “go” on land and on sea. Under the command of the shore based ground control station (GCS), the RQ-8A Fire Scout lifted off from the shore, and began its autonomous route to the ship. The shore-based GCS handed off control to the shipboard GCS, and after establishing telemetry data, a series of ever-closer approaches to the ship were conducted. In accordance with the test plan script, the RQ-8A Fire Scout came aboard the USS NASHVILLE for the first autonomous landing at 2:42 p.m.

Two other landings were conducted to gather further data. The aircraft was then returned to shore control and landed at the Webster Field annex of Patuxent River NAS.

In this test operation, the VTUAV system consisted of one air vehicle, one shore-based GCS, one ship-based GCS, the Tactical Control System software, and an Unmanned Common Automatic Recovery System (UCARS) precision landing system, plus associated test related telemetry equipment. In its fleet version, the system will add a Tactical Common Data Link and a secure landing grid system.

The air vehicle used for this event was a developmental article from a previous acquisition phase, an RQ-8A. The VTUAV program is currently producing MQ-8B variants, with more capability for payloads and performance. The test was designed to exercise those areas of the system that are maturing and provide feedback into the design loop as the baseline software build for the MQ-8B is finalized.

“While this is a great event for the UAS community, it is on schedule for the VTUAV program” stated Cmdr. Rob Murphy, VTUAV team lead. “In the past, systems had been treating the ship as a graduation exercise, and we recognized the need for early data collection and input. We have already gathered a lot of data as to vehicle and system command performance, plus a lot of lessons learned while operating in the shipboard environment.”

“This event has provided much needed data for how autonomous systems will operate in the future.” said Capt. Paul Morgan, UAS program manager. “This is the bedrock of future autonomous systems, of which VTUAV is the forerunner. We gather data every time this system flies, and are on the downward slope of the learning curve – this is an exciting time.”

“I commend the tremendous effort the integrated government and Northrop Grumman test team put a forward to get to the ship, and I extend a depth of gratitude to Capt. Mewbourne, Commanding Officer of the USS NASHVILLE.” declared Rear Adm. Tim Heely, Program Executive Officer for Strike Weapons and Unmanned Aviation. “The can-do attitude and professionalism of his crew was immediately evident, and provided the keystone to this successful test period.”

The VTUAV system plans further shipboard tests this year in the May/June timeframe, as funding allows. The production MQ-8B airframe is planning first flight for August 2006. Fire Scout IOC is planned for FY08.


Caption for Photo #1 - Fire Scout UAV approaches USS NASHVILLE (LPD 13) for the first autonomous landing aboard a fleet vessel.

Caption for Photo #2 - Fire Scout UAV meets the ship deck during a series of flight tests this week from Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Maryland.

Caption for Photo #3 - Fire Scout UAV met a developmental milestone this week with nine autonomous shipboard landings, marking a first for unmanned aerial vehicles.

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