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Navy commits to unmanned vehicles in a big way

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 9, 2009.

The members of Navy Helicopter Squadron Light 42's seventh detachment would be busy enough this time of year anyway, as the pilots and maintainers work toward an upcoming deployment.

But on top of the other work the Mayport Naval Station-based detachment has to do, it has a second job: Helping the Navy roll out the Fire Scout, the service's newest unmanned aerial system, the first with rotary wings.

"We're essentially working side-by-side with the testers, " said Lt. Cmdr. Bob Williams, officer in charge of the detachment. "We're helping write all the things that usually we'd be reading."

The detachment took on the new duty last year, putting it at the forefront of the Navy's burgeoning unmanned aerial systems program.

And that's a big program.

The Fire Scout is one of more than three dozen unmanned vehicles the Navy has already acquired or is considering buying. Although it was the last service to embrace unmanned systems, the Navy is now the only branch of the armed services that is looking at systems that operate in every environment - atop the water, underwater, in the air and on the ground: from devices that help its special forces defuse improvised explosives to torpedo-like devices that conduct surveillance to boats equipped with machine guns.

Jacksonville is on the cutting edge of the aerial part of that program: The first Fire Scouts will be flown by Mayport aviators from Mayport ships, while the still-in-the-works Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system - slated to be built in St. Augustine - will be flown out of Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Such drones are useful, the military says, because they can handle jobs that are "dull, dirty, or dangerous:" everything from disarming IEDS to conducting long-term surveillance.

The value of the Fire Scout and BAMS centers on the dull stuff: specifically, surveillance - and a lot of it.

"You have your eyes in the sky out there in a persistent manner, " said Gary Kessler, who's in charge of acquiring and supporting all the Navy's unmanned aerial systems. "That's a huge capability for the Navy."

And that persistency might be better handled without a pilot behind the stick, Williams said. "It allows us to spend our time more efficiently, " doing things like medical evacuations or armed combat, Williams said, tasks that require a trained pilot.

FILLING A NICHE

The Fire Scout - the first of the Jacksonville-based systems scheduled to be deployed, perhaps this year - has had a somewhat tortured history. The Navy placed the first orders for the aircraft almost two decades ago, but then decided in 2001 that it wasn't interested after all. The Army picked up the program a few years later, re-piquing the interest of the Navy, which thought it would be the perfect complement for its new Littoral Combat Ships.

That class of ship has been facing its own problems, though, and in 2008 the Navy decided to see if the aerial vehicle would work on a frigate.

Enter the USS McInerney. The Mayport-based ship has had experience being on the cutting edge, helping test the H-60, the helicopter now flown by the Navy. A bunch of retrofitting later - "They did some amazing modifications, " Williams said - and the McInerney was ready to host the Fire Scout.

The Fire Scout fills a particular niche in the unmanned ecosystem. Based on the same ship as a manned H-60 helicopter, the Fire Scout will be sent up to survey nearby parts of the ocean, looking for things like drug runners, and then returning to ship six to eight hours later. It's the only major rotary-based unmanned aviation system the Navy has.

"You get a helicopter when you need a helicopter, " said Northrup Grumman's Fire Scout Business Manager Mike Fuqua. "Landing on back of a moving ship at sea is when you need a helicopter."

NAVY MOVING AHEAD

When you need to have someone staring at thousands of square miles of ocean for hours on end, that's when you look for something like the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system.

BAMSes are, basically, the unmanned counterpart to the P-8, the aircraft replacing the Navy's P-3 that is designed to handle missions like collecting electronic intelligence and searching for submarines.

Six P-8 squadrons, including BAMS, are slated to be based at Jacksonville NAS beginning in 2012 or 2013. The unmanned vehicles will fly out of each of the naval air stations where those squadrons will be based and send its data back in real time - unlike the P-3s, which brings their data back when they return.

Like the P-8, BAMS will fly at a high altitude, covering a larger region and staying up for longer periods of time than a Fire Scout.

BAMS is based on the Global Hawk, the Air Force's first high altitude drone, which has seen success in Afghanistan despite some early problems.

The lessons learned in the ground war have been useful as the Navy moves ahead with its programs.

"What we've been learning is unmanned aerial systems really bring a tremendous capability to the war fighter, particularly in the type of war we're in, " said Kessler. "When one of your enemies materializes, you know it."

Making a maritime version of the Global Hawk, though, required plenty of changes, said BAMS business development manager Tom Twomey: sensors that look everywhere, not just off to the side; the addition of de-icing systems that will let BAMS drop through clouds to take a closer look at suspicious ships; and more powerful communication systems.

Like the Fire Scout, Twomey said, BAMS works in conjunction with its manned counterpart. In BAMS' case, it would be sent to monitor a large area for a long time - upwards of 24 hours - without a pilot's physical needs getting in the way. If the operator notices something amiss, a manned P-8 can head to the area to provide more personalized service.

TAKING 'MAN OUT OF THE LOOP'

With all of the Navy's unmanned systems, the pilots who take to the sky in manned crafts will be responsible for running the unmanned versions as well - at least for now.

The pilots aren't actually flying the unmanned systems, though, but rather directing it where to go. "It takes in large measure man out of the loop, " Fuqua said. "From takeoff to landing, it can be fully autonomous."

Pointing and clicking with a mouse to establish waypoints, the operator plans the route, rather than actually operating the controls that make the aircraft move.

It's unclear, though, if a fully trained pilot is required for the job.

The Navy has considered instituting an enlisted job of running such vehicles, a question the people in charge of training are still looking at. Williams - in whose detachment all pilots are trained as Fire Scout operators - said it's too early to have an opinion, but during deployment he plans on keeping notes on the effect of combining the jobs.

Those notes could come in useful as the Navy continues to push into unmanned systems, something it has no plan of stopping.

"It's been in the last three or four years that we've really reached the tipping point, " Kessler said. "People have a lot of confidence and capability in the systems. You're going to see the areas where we utilize unmanned systems continue to grow."



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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