Christopher P. Cavas – Staff writer for Navy news :-
Flights of the MQ-8B Fire Scout, a small, unmanned helicopter the Navy is testing to operate from its warships, will resume Sept. 20, the Navy announced late Thursday.
The flights will end a period where the drones were grounded after operators lost control of one on Aug. 2 and it entered restricted airspace around Washington. This time, however, the mini-helos will be flying in a somewhat less-congested area: Yuma, Ariz.
The area around Yuma is “sparsely populated and the range is large,” Lt. Myers Vasquez, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said in a statement. “The Navy is putting safety first and eliminating all risk before flying aircraft in densely populated, highly-visible airspace.”
The service had been flying Fire Scouts out of Webster Field, an annex to nearby Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland. Testing will resume at Webster Field but only after engineers validate updated software for the aircraft. New software is scheduled to be installed early next month, according to Vasquez.
The Aug. 2 incident came about 75 minutes into what had been a routine test flight. Ground operators lost the control link with the Fire Scout, which should have automatically flown back to its base. Instead, the helicopter flew about 23 miles on a north-by-northwest course and entered the National Capital Region restricted airspace, part of the Air Defense Identification Zone surrounding the capital.
The link was eventually restored when engineers moved to another ground control station, and the aircraft was commanded to return to Webster Field, where it landed without damage or having incurred any injuries.
Although the Fire Scout has racked up more than 1,000 flight hours since December 2006, this was the first such incident to hit the program, the Navy said.
The service did not reveal the incident until Aug. 25, and then only in response to news queries.
The cause appeared to have been “a software anomaly that allowed the aircraft not to follow its pre-programmed flight procedures,” Fire Scout program manager Capt. Tim Dunigan said Aug. 25 in an e-mail statement. “We have identified the issue and have aircraft operating restrictions that will prevent this from happening again.”
The incident caused a stir at Northern Command, responsible for the overall defense of Washington.
“It’s headed right for the heart of the National Capital Region,” Adm. James Winnefeld, head of NORTHCOM, said on Sept. 9 in Washington as he recounted the incident for reporters. “Do you let it run out of gas and hopefully crash in a farmer’s field, or do you actually take action to shoot it down?”
“You certainly don’t want to shoot it down over a populated area if you can avoid it,” he added.
Although the Navy was coordinating its recovery efforts with NORTHCOM, fighters were about to be scrambled to intercept the Fire Scout, Winnefeld said, when control was re-established.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been pressured by the Pentagon to relax restrictions on the use of unmanned aircraft over the U.S., but the effects of the latest incident remain to be seen.
“It certainly doesn’t help our case anytime there’s a UAV that wanders around a little bit outside of what’s controlled airspace,” Winnefeld said.
Developed by Northrop Grumman, Fire Scout is intended to provide surveillance and reconnaissance data to Navy warships, including Littoral Combat Ships and other surface combatants.