Faced with lean budgets and an increasingly complex and dangerous defence and security environment, the UK urgently needs to be able to continue to produce clever, robust solutions for less money.
One such area where an innovative, affordable solution may one day unseat more expensive technology programmes falls within the Royal Navy's ability to provide superior persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).
QinetiQ and Northrop Grumman believe that they have identified a reliable, cost-effective Vertical Take-Off Unmanned Air System (VTUAS) capability that could form the basis for a radical change in the conduct of maritime patrol and war-fighting operations by the Royal Navy.
This is the view of Jeremy Howitt, QinetiQ's Assistant Technical Director with the company's Air Engineering Group, who has announced an intention to integrate the Northrop Grumman Fire Scout Vehicle Management System (VMS) into the Gazelle helicopter to create a UK VTUAS capability at this year's DSEi exhibition.
Mr Howitt says that the conversion of a Gazelle into a VTUAS platform compares to the Northrop Grumman Fire-X conversion of the Bell 407, which has recently been approved by the US Navy with plans to acquire 28 air vehicles for deployment from 2014.
"There are many VTUAS on the market, from model-scale vehicles up to full-scale helicopters and with an equally wide range of capabilities, but currently only the Fire Scout is operating from ships and delivering military effect on a regular basis," says Mr Howitt.
The Northrop Grumman Fire Scout is the world's first and currently only shipborne VTUAS and is proving to be an extremely valuable persistent ISR platform for the US Navy in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Libya. Indeed, so successful has the Fire Scout been that the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, speaking at this year's AUVSI Unmanned Systems Symposium and Exhibition, said: "With our Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, we deployed that two years ahead of its initial operating capability date. Although that system for the Navy was procured to operate off of our ships, it is operating ashore in Afghanistan and there is an additional demand for more Fire Scouts to support operations there."
The recommended UK platform for the Fire Scout conversion, the Gazelle, is a highly respected and reliable helicopter which is currently flown by the British Army Air Corps. It is recognised that the Gazelle is a short-term solution, but it provides an extremely cost effective way for the Royal Navy to gain valuable, early operational experience with a VTUAS with a view to re-hosting the system in a more capable airframe as part of the Future Force 2020. The conversion of a Gazelle into a VTUAS platform would take place at MOD Boscombe Down, which is run and managed by QinetiQ, while the flight test work for the demonstrator programme would be conducted at the QinetiQ West Wales UAV Centre.
"The Royal Navy has a number of capability gaps in the ISR arena, which can be significantly improved by an affordable shipborne VTUAS solution that brings together the highly successful Fire Scout capability, while leveraging the proven reliability and low cost of the Gazelle," says Mr Howitt, who also led QinetiQ's flight trials programme with the T4 Vectored-thrust Aircraft Advanced Control (VAAC) Harrier to provide risk reduction for the F-35B Lightning II STOVL aircraft.
The conversion and subsequent demonstrator programme has the full support of Northrop Grumman. Scott Winship, Vice President, Advanced Concepts Air and Land, Northrop Grumman, said: "Unmanned air systems have demonstrated their increasing operational utility in recent years, particularly when enabled by advances in satellite guidance and communications, computerised flight control systems, and new sensor technologies. The introduction of VTUAS capabilities takes this journey to an exciting new level and as such Northrop Grumman is pleased to support QinetiQ in the development of a Vertical Take-Off UAS for the Royal Navy."
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