This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Rather than waiting for the U.S. Army to flight-test the Fire Scout vertical-takeoff unmanned aerial vehicle (VTUAV), Northrop Grumman is investing heavily in a test program of its own. The company's impatience may well pay off -- when the Army finally makes a decision about air vehicles for its new Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM) program, Fire Scout will be ready to go.
The dissolution of the Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) and cancellation of the manned ground vehicle component has forced the Army to re-examine its requirements as it moves forward with the BCTM. In the case of the UAV piece of the modernization plan, the Army will field its Class I UAV (a small VTUAV weighing 50 lb.) in Fiscal 2011 and 2012. The next VTUAV to come online as part of the BCTM is a Class IV UAV -- in this case, Fire Scout. The Army selected Fire Scout for the FCS in 2003, but brigade combat teams are not scheduled to field the aircraft until 2014, according to current requirements.
The Navy, on the other hand, is already flying its MQ-8B Fire Scout from the USS McInerney on counternarcotics missions in the Caribbean. The service contracted with Northrop Grumman in 2004 to create a Fire Scout variant to use on the Littoral Combat Ship. The aircraft has executed 600 hr. of flight testing and 110 takeoffs and landings from the McInerney.
Subsequently, Northrop Grumman is not waiting for the Army to make its move. On Oct. 6, the company announced that its corporate-owned Fire Scout, dubbed White Tail, flew under the command and control of a new company-developed Stanag 4586-compatible ground control station (GCS). Stanag 4586 is the NATO interoperability standard for unmanned aircraft. The company flew the White Tail in late September at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., promoting the flights as having demonstrated the functionality of its own GCS. Future demonstration flights will also use the company's GCS, including ongoing flights at Yuma in preparation for the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment at Ft. Benning, Ga., early next year.
But the GCS is just one piece of Northrop Grumman's multi-pronged investment strategy. Joe Emerson, the company's Fire Scout Army program manager, says Northrop Grumman is partnering with platform manufacturer Schweitzer on investing in a new rotor. Adding payloads adds weight, and the "fastest fix is to change out rotor blades. It's the first area we're looking at," says Emerson.
Read the rest of this story, check out DARPA's bomberbellylaserplan, find out why it's hard to get the Afghan army its bullets and see who's to blame for bad program management from our friends at Aviation Week, exclusively on Military.com.