Australia is set to become only the second nation in the world to operate unmanned helicopters from navy warships. Future Royal Australian Navy vessels will almost certainly be equipped with both manned and remote unmanned choppers that will reduce risk and cost.
However the most potent of all new warships — the troubled 7000-tonne Air Warfare Destroyer — can’t accommodate an unmanned machine because its hangar can only fit a single manned MRH-90 machine.
The navy’s future frigate programme includes a requirement for both manned and unmanned machines.
A MH-60 ‘Romeo’ Sea Hawk helicopter (left) and a MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter off littoral combat ship USS Freedom. Picture: Supplied Source: Supplied
The advanced and battle proven and missile armed unmanned helicopters being used by the US Navy could operate from two new 27,500-tonne Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious support ships.
Known as the Fire Scout the choppers — built by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman — have been operating with US forces off frigates and over land in Africa and Afghanistan for more than two years.
The initial MQ-8B version of the machine has flown 15,000 hours and is roughly eight times cheaper to operate than a Seahawk Romeo manned helicopter.
Australia is interested in the latest $20 million ‘C’ model of the system that is based on a “de-manned” version of the Canadian built Bell 407 civilian chopper.
US Navy MQ-8C Fire Scout helicopters in the hangar at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station, north of Los Angeles. Picture: Ian McPhedran Source: Supplied
The ‘C’ model is larger, can carry bigger loads, fly faster and higher and stay aloft for 12 hours.
Program director US Navy Captain Jeff Dodge said the step up from the MQ-8B to the ‘C’ model aircraft was akin to a brain transplant.
“We are taking the computer and putting it on a bigger, stronger helicopter,” he said.
US Navy officers Commander Brian Reardon and Captain Jeff Dodge with a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter at Webster Field near Washington. Picture: Ian McPhedran Source: Supplied
In a hangar at Webster Field on Chesapeake Bay near Washington, US Navy and Northrop Grumman technicians are conducting further testing on the smaller version of the Fire Scout.
The trials have included a live firing of a laser guided rocket and a beach zone mine detection system.
Each ship operating the Fire Scout is equipped with a precision landing system that tracks the pilotless chopper and feeds it data to guide it in for a perfect landing every time.
The system is being tested on numerous US ships including the hi-speed Littoral Combat Ship.
There are 29 ‘B’ models in service and 19 ‘C’ models in production.
“Unmanned is absolutely here to stay for dull, dirty and dangerous missions,’ Captain Dodge said.
“You will always need the flexibility that manned systems bring.”
Ground staff prepare a Northrop Grumman Fire Scout MQ-8C unmanned helicopter for a test flight at the US Naval Air Station at Point Mugu. Picture: Ian McPhedran Source: Supplied
The US Navy’s concept of operations for the system involves a mixture of manned and unmanned aircraft using experienced pilots to operate the remote system.
“Someone who has done missions in a helicopter can make decisions better than non-pilots,” he said.
According to US navy officer Commander Brian Reardon, several aircraft were lost including one shot down in Af ghanistan and another that crashed due to severe icing.
“We didn’t have to go and visit anyone’s family, that’s the magic,” Commander Reardon said.
Across the country at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station north of Los Angeles six of the larger MQ-8C models of Fire Scout are undergoing intensive testing.
Civilian airspace managers remain very nervous about unmanned systems and Point Mugu is the only location in the US where unmanned helicopters operate inside manned airspace.
Test flight director Lieutenant Commander David Belew, a fixed wing pilot, said pilots were amazed by the stability of the Fire Scout.
US Navy Fire Scout unmanned helicopter test flight director Lieutenant Commander David Selew with an MQ-8C machine about to undertake a test flight at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station. Picture: Ian McPhedran Source: Supplied
One chopper pilot told him that there was no way he could hold the aircraft as steady as the remote system.
Due to its larger payload the C model could be used for both anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare as well as surveillance.
Northrop Grumman’s program lead for Australia, Japan and Korea Greg Miller said the unmanned system was designed to complement a manned system.
“You use a manned and unmanned team to extend mission performance and reduce the overall cost,” he said.
FIRE SCOUT MQ-8C UNMANNED HELICOPTER:
- Based on Bell 407 commercial helicopter
- Designed to operate from ships or on land
- Operated remotely (fly by mouse) by pilot using computer keyboard and mouse
- Automatic landing system fitted to ship’s deck to guide chopper in
- Motion and speed of ship calculated automatically
- Maximum speed 180km/h
- Service ceiling 5500 metres
- Endurance 10 to 12 hours
- Approx cost $20 million (fly away)
- 8 times cheaper to run than Seahawk helicopter
- Navy could purchase up to 12
Source: News COM Au