The Coast Guard intends to follow the lead of the Navy when it comes to fielding its long-delayed vertical take off and landing unmanned aerial vehicles, said the chief of the service’s acquisition directorate.
“We think we want to be aligned with the Navy on this particular technology because it just makes good sense for both of us,” said Rear Adm. Ronald Rabago, assistant commandant for acquisitions at the Coast Guard.
The Navy is in the advanced stages of testing and has approved low-rate initial production of the MQ-8 Fire Scout rotary-wing UAV manufactured by Northrop Grumman.
The Coast Guard wants a vertical-UAV to fly off its new National Security and Offshore Patrol Cutters. The service spent five years and $113.7 million to develop a tilt-wing aircraft manufactured by Bell Aircraft. That program ran into technical problems and funding delays and was canceled in 2007.
Since then, the Coast Guard has been studying the problem and taking a wait-and-see position as the Navy tests the Fire Scout. A new report on the service’s UAV strategy is due in 2010.
While it may be one of the smallest assets in the Coast Guard’s $24 billion Deepwater modernization program, it is considered one of the most important, according to a June Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report on the VUAV.
“Acquisition of the VUAV was a key component of the Integrated Deepwater System (Deepwater) Contract,” said the report. Without it, the operational effectiveness of the new National Security Cutter will be comparable to the Hamilton-class high endurance cutter it is intended to replace.
The number of nautical square miles the NSC can conduct aerial surveillance is reduced by 68 percent, from 58,000 to 18,000, when helicopters launched from the cutters are used instead of the drones, the report said.
The Government Accountability Office in a July report on the operational effectiveness of the National Security Cutters criticized the lack of progress. If an aircraft is selected in 2010, GAO said, it would “still require several years of construction and testing after its initial selection.”
Rabago said: “I think it could happen a little quicker.” There are funds in the Coast Guard’s 2010 budget to continue testing the Fire Scout, he added.
Meanwhile, a Fire Scout recently underwent a dry fit test on the first National Security Cutter, the Bertholf. It was not flown on to the deck, but it was placed there to see how the crew would manage taking it in and out of the hangar, he said. “That test worked very well,” he added.
During the past two years, Northrop Grumman has spent its own funds to purchase and integrate a multi-mode maritime radar into the Fire Scout. Since the Navy had no immediate requirement for the radar, and the Coast Guard’s program had stalled, the company proceeded with its own development, said John VanBrabant, manager of vertical-unmanned aerial systems for Northrop Grumman.
The Coast Guard is also leveraging the work Customs and Border Protection has done to develop a maritime version of the Predator B unmanned aerial vehicle. Such a UAV could be flown from land bases to provide coverage for a cutter, Rabago said.
Despite all these Fire Scout tests, Rabago stressed that there has not been a decision made on the UAV.
“We think that may be a good platform; however, we have not made that decision. There are a couple of other [UAVs] out there being looked by DoD for [maritime] use.”
Meanwhile, at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International conference in August, Northrop was displaying a Fire Scout model in its exhibition booth that was painted in the Coast Guard’s orange and white colors.
Other vendors have vertical take off and landing UAVs.
“We keep up to date on what they’re doing,” Stirling Hunter, A160 business manager for Boeing, said of the Coast Guard. The A160 Hummingbird is a rotary-wing UAV. “We go and see them every six months or so.”
The VUAV doesn’t seem to be a top priority for the Coast Guard right now, he said. Boeing doesn’t have any plans to convert the Hummingbird to maritime use unless the Navy shows interest, he said.
For now, Boeing is concentrating its efforts for the Hummingbird on land-based applications such as the Marine Corps logistics resupply vehicle and for special operations, he said.
Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a Manassas, Va.-based aviation company, would be interested in competing for a future Coast Guard UAV, said its president, John Langford. It has two ducted fan UAVs capable of vertical take off and landing and a two-seat aircraft that can be either piloted or unpiloted.
“I am not fully convinced that there has been a systematic or objective analysis of alternatives,” Langford said of the Coast Guard’s efforts to choose a UAV. He acknowledged that the Fire Scout seems to be the Coast Guard’s favored solution.
Aurora offers the small 130-pound Goldeneye 80 ducted-fan UAV and the larger 620-pound Excalibur, which had its first flight at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., in June. The Army Applied Aviation Technology Directorate and the Office of Naval Research have supplied funding for the aircraft’s development.
The Excalibur does not yet have a maritime radar that would be required by the Coast Guard, but “we’re moving ahead in that direction,” said Tom Clancy, chief technology officer at the company.
As for using fixed-wing UAVs to fly missions for cutters, Clancy pointed to its optionally piloted DA-42M aircraft as an alternative. Moving a Predator to an overseas airport is a logistical headache, he said. It would be easier to take an optionally piloted aircraft overseas, then switch to pilotless mode to give it the long endurance required.
Vendors and analysts at the conference agreed that if the Coast Guard makes a quick decision, the Fire Scout has the lead in any potential competition. But if the service continues to let the process drag on, rivals such as Boeing or Aurora could catch up.