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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gazelles Unmanned: Royal Navy’s Fire Scout UAS

With commercial-off-the-shelf projects seemingly representing the short-term way ahead for military procurement, the UK’s Royal Navy may be about to benefit from the U.S. Navy quest for a maritime UAS

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

A QinetiQ artist’s impression of the Gazelle UAS.

Have you heard about the old helicopter, the new technological application and the customer that needs to spend as little as possible? You have? Okay, I admit that wasn’t much of a challenge in these recession-like times. In fact it’s commonplace. The old helicopter is the Aerospatiale SA342 Gazelle, the technological application revolves around unmanned aerial system (UAS) management control software, and the prospective customer is the British Royal Navy. Admittedly the initial reaction is one that anticipates another British ‘patch-up and make do’ plan, but that would not be giving credit to the fact that the players behind this are none other than QinetiQ and Northrop Grumman (the people that brought you Global Hawk and, more in tune with this scenario, Fire Scout and its bigger, newer brother, Fire-X).

But in September 2011 Jeremy Howitt, QinetiQ’s assistant technical director with the company’s Air Engineering group, announced an intention to integrate the Northrop Grumman Fire Scout vehicle management system (VMS) into the Gazelle helicopter to create a UK vertical takeoff unmanned aircraft system (VTUAS) capability. Howitt formed good links with Northrop Grumman, having led QinetiQ’s flight trials program with the T4 vectored-thrust aircraft advanced control (VAAC) Harrier to provide risk reduction for the F-35B Lightning II short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL). Although the prospective Gazelle vertical UAS (VUAS) customer, the British Royal Navy, has not endorsed the proposal, last year’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) left capability gaps that all three services are now trying to fill. A basic maritime UAS built on existing technology could, says Howitt, span the gap in maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) until future bigger budgets allowed the development of a built-for-purpose platform that would see the Royal Navy into and well beyond Future Force 2020. The proof-of-concept has already been defined with other platforms in the U.S. Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout MQ-8B has flown thousands of hours of flight testing and landed on the helicopter decks of U.S. Navy ships while under way. 

More recently the company has switched focus onto the Fire-X, described as a medium range VUAS. Fire-X, which is a derivative of the Bell 407 with the software architecture based on the Fire Scout, is currently under trials with the U.S. Navy, but there is an intention to buy 28 of the aircraft from 2014. Fire-X represents one platform for unmanned (or even optionally manned) rotary lift capability being developed across armed forces for an unmanned cargo platform.

USMC is about to test Kaman’s K-MAX in Afghanistan and has also been testing with Boeing’s A160T Hummingbird. The U.S. Army is also beginning to show similar interest. Northrop Grumman extols the value of the Fire-X in this unmanned cargo role, pointing to its stated capacity to lift over 3,200 lbs. either internally or externally. Endurance is stated to be “more than 15 hours when properly configured.”

The first fully autonomous flight of the Fire-X occurred on Dec. 10, 2010 at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The flight comprised a short hover to confirm the autonomous flight capability, with the intent to extend developing the flight envelope and adding ISR payloads and cargo lifting tests. Since Fire-X is based on Bell’s 407, the OEM would be providing logistical support.

This is all potentially good news for the Royal Navy. Paul Meyer, sector VP and GM of the Advanced Programs and Technology division at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said the speed which Fire-X was developed “shows that a low-risk, fast-track solution can be safely flown using the proven MQ-8B Fire Scout’s unmanned systems autonomous flight architecture.” George Spongberg, Northrop Grumman Fire-X program manager, added that “the expertise of Northrop Grumman in unmanned systems combined with Bell’s rotorcraft knowledge is what makes Fire-X so successful. We’ve been able to share key insights throughout development—allowing a seamless transition of autonomous flight systems software to a new airframe.” QinetiQ runs its own fleet of five Gazelles at Boscombe Down airfield in Wiltshire, UK. Boscome Down is an aircraft testing facility formerly owned by the UK’s Ministry of Defence but now operated and managed by QinetiQ.

It is also home to the Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron (RWTES). This is a tri-service squadron that’s basic duty is to test and evaluate rotary wing aircraft and associated equipment and weapon systems to generate evidence to support recommendations for Military Aircraft Release/Release to Service. As such, the skills are readily at hand to undertake such a project involving the Gazelle. The conversion would be carried out at Boscombe Down, while the flight test work for the demonstrator program would be conducted at the QinetiQ West Wales UAV Center.

Without doubt the Gazelle is an old aircraft, although the airframes will have been maintained over the years to the Ministry of Defence’s standards. The first flight of a Gazelle helicopter (AS340) was on April 7, 1967 using the same engine and rotors as the Alouette, from which it was designed. It was introduced into active service in 1973 with the French and British Armies as well as the Serbian and Egyptian Air Forces. The Gazelle received power from a single Turbomeca Astazou IIA turboshaft engine providing 860 hp. It acquired a reputation for its speed, versatility and clean lines and was used in both attack/reconnaissance and utility configurations. The relatively spacious interior (for the time) provided five seats for crew and passengers. Within the British forces they were used effectively during the Iraq war in 2003 as part of a hunter/killer team with TOW carrying Royal Navy Lynx helicopters of 847 Naval Air Squadron.

But the Gazelle could be useful as a short-term solution in regard to a number of its qualities. It would be able to carry not only sensor systems but also a maritime search radar, noted Howitt. ISR requirements were identified and confirmed through the Royal Navy’s participation in Operation Ellamy, the UK’s contribution to the protection of Libyan citizens under the wider NATO Operation Unified Protector, as well as through other experiences such as the protection of shipping against piracy off the Somali coast.

What the Northrop Grumman partnership offers QinetiQ, and therefore potentially the Royal Navy, is the years of testing mission equipment packages onboard Fire Scout and now Fire-X in cooperation with the U.S. Navy. This seems to be as fast-tracked as is possible these days, with the obvious acknowledgement that the Gazelle is an entirely new platform that would have to undergo the usual systems integration and flight trials. But the platform in this case should be less of a problem. They are readily available with flight experience still residing within the British Army.

Howitt considers that the project could well retain an optionally manned element to it as with the Fire-X demonstrator. Optionally manned still provides the military with the capability for operational flexibility (although obviously this is not the case with the older Fire Scout). The intent is not to add another platform into the mix without an increase in flexibility, as was recently stated by the U.S. Army Aviation leadership when discussing its requirement for an optionally manned Armed Aerial Scout. So although the Gazelle would clearly offer only a short-term solution, both QinetiQ and Northrop Grumman believe that this would offer the Royal Navy a cost-effective way ‘to gain valuable, early operational experience with a VTUAS with a view to re-hosting the system in a more capable airframe as part of the Future Force 2020,” he said.

In summary, Howitt sees that there would be a significant carry over of 95 percent of the Fire Scout’s systems, with the obvious expectations of those needing to be aircraft specific. “It will look like a Gazelle but, in reality, it’s a Fire Scout,” he concludes.

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