The Coast Guard has halted development of the Eagle Eye vertical unmanned aerial vehicle and is considering other hovering drones for its Integrated Deepwater Systems program, according to agency and industry sources.
Conceived to fly from the yet to be deployed National Security Cutter, the Eagle Eye is designed to provide long-range over the horizon intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance.
The order to halt work was mostly “due to financial priorities,” said Coast Guard spokesman George Kardulias. “Based on the budget we had to operate with, focus has been put on things needed more immediately such as ships and manned airplanes.”
A contractor who works at Coast Guard headquarters said other unmanned aircraft are being considered.
“The Coast Guard is looking at other alternatives as a bridge … because the Coast Guard does want a UAV that lifts off from the cutters,” said the contractor, who declined to be named.
“In a couple years, there could be a quick jump [in technology] to something that is a lot less expensive, a lot simpler and does the same job.”
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is completing work on a two-phase study “re-examining the way ahead for unmanned vehicles,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore, testifying in May before the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Current plans call for the Coast Guard to lease four RQ-4A Global Hawk high altitude endurance UAVs, but that is probably being re-examined as well, Kardulias said.
The Eagle Eye has tilt rotors, similar to the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, which is built by the same contractor, Bell Helicopter of Fort Worth, Texas. Up to four could be deployed on a National Security Cutter, depending on the mission.
On the technical side, the Eagle Eye program is in good shape, said Mark Gaspar, director of Lockheed Martin Coast Guard systems. The program “could be picked up and proceed just by turning it back on again.” Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are partners in the Integrated Coast Guard Systems, the lead contractor on the program.
Gaspar also suggested that an alternative is being considered.
“Whether it is the Bell Eagle Eye or the Fire Scout that Northrop Grumman produces, the enterprise needs those over the horizon eyes in order to be fully effective,” he said.
The MQ-8B Fire Scout, a Navy rotary-wing UAV built by Northrop Grumman, like the Eagle Eye, is designed to take off and land from ships. Last summer, the Navy demonstrated the aircraft’s ability to autonomously land on a moving ship. It is slated to be a part of the Navy’s littoral combat ship, which like the National Security Cutter, is in the late stages of development.
Plans call for 45 Eagle Eyes to be delivered during the course of the 25-year program, with the first production prototype to arrive in the fall of 2008. Due to the budget constraints, that timeline will not be met. With the first cutter, the Bertholf, scheduled for delivery next year, it appears it will sail without a VUAV. Kardulias said that the ship’s helicopters can duplicate the reconnaissance and surveillance mission.
However, Gaspar said the drones significantly extend the cutter’s reach. A conventional helicopter can cover about 9,000 nautical square miles opposed to a UAV, which can extend that to 56,000 nautical square miles and do so at a much lower operating cost.
One Eagle Eye crashed during a test flight in April 2006. Margaret Mitchell-Jones, ICGS spokeswoman, said this test was done with a prototype drone at Bell’s own expense, and therefore, the accident should not be associated with the Deepwater program. The actual Eagle Eye configured for the Coast Guard has not yet been assembled, added Gaspar.
Bell spokesman Mike Cox said that the Eagle Eye meets all the technical requirements spelled out in the contract and it is the company’s understanding that the delay is for budgetary reasons. He referred further questions to Coast Guard headquarters.
A Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report said “technical and contractual problems” have hindered the VUAV program. “The VAUVs do not have the kind of detection and collision avoidance technology required to operate within national airspace, and would therefore be limited to fly outside of zones used by manned aircraft.”
National airspace is defined as the area controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system. The FAA, so far, has been cautious in allowing UAVs to fly domestically. However, the National Security Cutter is mostly intended for international missions far from U.S. shores.
The report did not mention any further technical hurdles, but did hint at possible problems that have plagued Deepwater in the past — namely a lack of oversight.
“The performance based contract that is being used to procure the VAUVs can result in errors in ‘translation’ between government needs and the requirements that are included in the contract,” the IG said.
The Coast Guard has said it is hiring the personnel needed to oversee the Deepwater programs.
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