Naval Air: Rushing The Robots Into The Air


November 11, 2009: The U.S. Navy is scrounging for cash to speed up development and use of unmanned vehicles. The admirals see this as the future, and they want to make sure the U.S. gets there first. The most urgent demand is for the navy's new helicopter UAV, the MQ-8B (formerly the RQ-8) Fire Scout. Already on the fast track, the MQ-8B is being assigned to another class of ships, besides the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) it was first designed for. That's because the LCS is behind schedule and the Fire Scout isn't. The first ship to carry this helicopter UAV is a Perry class frigate, the USS McInerney (FFG-8). This ship is assigned to the 4th Fleet, and will be operating in the Caribbean, chasing drug smugglers. This will give the Fire Scout some real world experience, although not with the fire Hellfire missiles it can carry. Prior to this assignment, the Fire Scout underwent 110 takeoffs and landings on the frigate, and 600 hours of flight testing. But the navy wants to get the MQ-8B on more ships, in every part of the world.

The MQ-8B can stay in the air for up to eight hours at a time (five hour missions are more common), has a top speed of 230 kilometers an hour, and can operate over 200 kilometers from its controller (on land, or a ship.) The MQ-8B is still going to be used on the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

The next big UAV priority is X-47B unmanned combat aircraft, which is being readied for carrier operations. The new UAV is being put together using, literally, some proven components. This includes the tail hook from the retired F-14, the same tires used on the retired S-3, the brakes used on the F-18 and generators used in the F-22. The X-47B weighs the same as the F-18. The navy plans to use the X-47B for reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting. But it also has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs. Many naval officers believe that eventually, once it proves it can operate off a carrier, the X-47B will be used for a lot of bombing. Sort of a super-Predator. The navy has been impressed with the success of the Predator. The 15 ton X-47B has a wingspan of 62 feet (whose outer 15 foot portions fold up to save space on the carrier). It uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15.

The navy is also hustling to get robotic USVs (unmanned surface vessel) ready for use on the LCS. There is will be used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). While two of these ASW USVs can be carried by LCS ships, the boats can also be used from shore stations. Apparently the first ones to see service will be sent to the Persian Gulf in the next three years, to help keep the Straits of Hormuz free of Iranian submarines. The ASW USV also carries vidcams and radar, to assist in avoiding collisions with other ships, and to keep Iranian gunboats from capturing or damaging one.  The navy is also developing UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles), for use by submarines and surface ships.



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