US Navy UAS Programs focus on Operational Deployments

The Navy is moving ahead with carrier tests of its prototype robotic attack aircraft and rolling out a first batch of dedicated unmanned maritime reconnaissance aircraft, a top service officer said.

The Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Aircraft Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) attack aircraft is preparing for at-sea landing, launch and deck handling trials later this year, Rear Adm. William Shannon, program executive officer for the Naval Air Systems Command’s Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons program office, said Feb. 8 at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems Program Review 2012 conference in Washington.

Before its carrier trials, the UCAS-D is undergoing autonomous airborne refueling tests with a Learjet standing for the robot attack craft, Shannon said. The Learjet is running the UCAS-D’s software. The carrier trials are scheduled for later this year, depending on ship availability, he said.

The first purpose-developed aircraft for the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program will also make their test flights this September or October, Shannon said. The Navy is operating modified Block 10 RQ-4Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that are essentially identical to those used by the Air Force. The new MQ-4C BAMS aircraft will have stronger wings with de-icing capability that will allow them to vary their altitude during a mission. The BAMS aircraft will also be equipped with search radar designed to support their maritime mission, he said.

Another UAS platform now in service is the MQ-8B Fire Scout. The robot helicopters are currently deployed on a U.S. warship operating in the Mediterranean where they have logged 420 operational flight hours, Shannon said. The Navy is working on an urgent requirement to mount weapons on the helicopter, and the first fire tests are scheduled for this fall followed by deployment next year, he said.

Several Fire Scouts are also operating in Afghanistan where they provide convoy support by searching for potential ambushes, Shannon said, adding that plans for the program include doubling the Fire Scout’s endurance and payload capacity. To do this, the program will use the Bell 407 manned helicopter’s airframe, which is bigger than the one now in use. However, there will be no changes to the aircraft’s software or ground station. “I look at it as a component upgrade,” he said.

The Navy is also developing a common control system for its UAS platforms. However, there are currently multiple programs that need to work together, Shannon said. The Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Air Force are working on standards, but commonality and interoperability will be key needs, he added.

“We claim to have standards, but we don’t,” Shannon said. He also said there are now enough options available in developing systems that they don’t communicate very well with each other across multiple command and control nodes. “We need to understand what’s happening at the nodes,” he said.