Naval Rotary UAVs

Mar 09, 2018 | Peter Donaldson بيتر دونالدسون

Rotary-wing UAVs, principally in the form of unmanned helicopters, are gaining favour with the world's navies as they prove their worth in trials and encourage governments to sign on the dotted line.

Working with prime contractor Northrop Grumman, the US Navy continues to extend the operational capabilities of the MQ-8B Fire Scout and its larger MQ-8C sibling.

Control Handover, Remote Targeting

On 15 August, the company announced that its instructors helped a team of Fire Scout operators from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23 train rehearse a mission to hand over an MQ-8B between ground stations and, separately, the provision of targeting information to a manned MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, both during an exercise off the coast of southern California lasting a week.

The crews were able to rehearse and validate their mission plans using simulators at Northrop Grumman that are normally used by pilots and payload operators for proficiency training.

In the long-range transit, operators using a mobile mission control station launched an MQ-8B from Naval Auxiliary Landing Field San Clemente Island, then handed over to colleagues at  Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, California, who handed control back during the return flight.

“Having the capability to hand-off control of the Fire Scout mid-flight significantly increases Fire Scout’s operational range and really shows what the system is capable of,” said Melissa Packwood, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems' Fire Scout programme manager.

Efforts continue to prove the operational capabilities of the MQ-8C version of the Fire Scout, which is based on the larger Bell 407 helicopter.Photo : Northrop Grumman


Secondly, the Fire Scout worked with the amphibious assault ship USS America and it’s Amphibious Ready Group/ Marine Expeditionary Unit. The MQ-8B laser designated a fast moving surface target, which an MH-60S engaged with a Hellfire missile.

Littoral Combat Ship operations

Meanwhile, efforts continue to prove the operational capabilities of the MQ-8C version of the Fire Scout, which is based on the larger Bell 407 helicopter. The MQ-8C's first take-off from a US Navy Independence class littoral combat ship, USS Montgomery, was announced on 11 April.

This second phase of what the Navy calls dynamic interface testing took place over two weeks at sea off the California coast to prove the UAV's airworthiness and its ability to take-off and land aboard the Independence class through a broad operational envelope, bringing the MQ-8C closer to its initial operational test and evaluation and full operational deployment.

"We plan to have the MQ-8C Fire Scout deployed aboard multiple ships in the near future giving the fleet the persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting asset they need”, said Captain Jeff Dodge, Naval Air Systems Command's Fire Scout programme manager.

A significantly more capable vehicle than the B-model, the MQ-8C weighs about 2,722 kg with full fuel and payload, cruises at 115 kt, boasts a service ceiling of 16,000 ft and an endurance of 12 hours with a 136 kg payload.

Notably, the MQ-8C is to deploy with Leonardo's Osprey Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. The US Navy chose a two-panel version of this small X-band radar, for which Leonardo claims a range of 200 nm and which comes with a set of advanced features including an AESA-enabled small target mode and very high-resolution, wide swath Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) mapping. Osprey is also designed to detect targets with small radar cross sections and low minimum detectable velocities, and features multi-channel moving target indication capability. The Osprey radar also has air-to-air surveillance, track and intercept capabilities, and detects difficult targets from high altitude.

Schiebel's 200 kg Camcopter S-100 is building a track record in naval operations with the German Navy, the Chinese Navy, the Emirati Navy and the Russian Coast Guard in the form of the Gorizont S-100, a licence-built variant, has been tested by numerous other navies and maritime forces, and in February the company announced its selection by the Royal Australian Navy.


Camcopter Aboard French Amphib

Trials with potential customers continue, and on 21 June the company announced successful completion of qualification flights for the French Navy between 29 May and 03 June from the deck of the service's newest Mistral class amphibious assault ship, the Bâtiment de Projection et de Commandement (BPC) Dixmude. These trials were carried out to confirm the Ship Helicopter Operating Limits (SHOL) and to qualify the UAVs integration with the vessel.

With Dixmude operating in the western Mediterranean, a Camcopter S-100 equipped with an L-3 Wescam MX-10 EO/IR turret and under the control of the ship's crew made about 30 take-offs and landings and logged 15 flight hours by day and night, according to Schiebel.


Arctic Trials

This followed a more mission-focused set of demonstrations in Northern Norway to several Norwegian armed forces, public service organisations and authorities including the Coastguard, Navy, Air Force, Coastal Administration and the Police Directorate at the Andøya Test Centre.  

During the event, which took place about 300 km north of the Arctic Circle, an S-100 equipped with an MX-10 took off from Andøya Air Base, tracked vessels and assisted in man-overboard drills. Separately, the vehicle also demonstrated its area coverage capabilities, scanning about 2,500 km2 for vessels.

The company has also been exploring Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) through the integration of Patria's Compact Airborne Networking Data Link (CANDL), which is intended to enable the S-100 to provide direct support to manned helicopter operations.


Leonardo's Solo and AWHERO

Leonardo offers two rotary wing UAVs for shipboard naval applications. One is the 1,800 kg optionally-piloted SW-4 Solo, which is based on the manned, Polish-designed SW-4 Sokol, the other is the smaller AWHERO, a programme it acquired along with developer Sistemi Dinamici in December 2016.

The former took part in the major series of maritime capability demonstrations around the coast of the UK last year under the Unmanned Warrior 2016 banner equipped with the Osprey AESA radar in addition to the SAGE Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system, also from Leonardo, integrated through the company's skyISTAR mission management system.

Based on an EASA-certified helicopter, the SW-4 Solo is designed for both unmanned and manned operations. The unmanned version is capable of ISR and cargo re-supply tasks, and while piloted it can undertake personnel transport, surveillance and intervention missions. With a payload of 470 kg, it has a range of 940 km and an endurance of six hours.

The AWHERO is classed as a tactical UAV for both land-based and maritime use. In the latter it is designed to operate in what Leonardo calls particularly severe weather and sea conditions for tasks including protection and support, transport of supplies, engage in anti-submarine warfare and anti-piracy operations. Additional missions for which it is intended include coastal and border patrol, ISR and targeting, detection, identification and monitoring of suspect vessels along with the monitoring of critical infrastructure and environmentally sensitive areas.

The example displayed at the Paris Air Show was equipped with Leonardo's Gabbiano radar and an EO/IR turret, while other options include synthetic aperture radar, ESM, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and Automatic Identification System (AIS) equipment, loudspeaker, distress sensor and a stores dispenser.

With a maximum take-off weight of 205 kg and an empty weight of 120 kg, it offers a useful load, which includes both payload and fuel, of 85 kg. Leonardo claims an endurance of six hours with a 35 kg payload, a service ceiling of 10,000 ft and a cruise speed of up to 90 kt.

In February, Leonardo announced the launch of the second phase of the Rotary Wing unmanned Air System (RUAS) demonstration programme. This is a two-year jointly funded effort with the UK Ministry of Defence to develop concepts for future operations under the auspices of a strategic partnering arrangement between them and drawing on experience from Unmanned Warrior and earlier first phase work.


Airbus VRS700 in Flight Test

Airbus has entered this market with the 700 kg Vertivision Surveillance Rotorcraft (VSR700) that it is developing in cooperation with Helicoptères Guimbal, on whose light helicopter the UAV is based.

“The Earth’s curvature means a frigate can survey an area of about 100 km,” according to programme manager Régis Antomarchi. “With the VSR700, this radius is multiplied many times over.” Antomarchi adds: “Ship-borne UAVs are already available, but they are either lightweight, and therefore not powerful enough to carry the necessary instruments, or they are relatively large, making operation more complex. The VSR700 fills this gap.”

Principally intended as a sensor platform, the VSR700 is based on Guimbal's Cabri G2 light helicopter, whose single diesel engine burns 15 kg of fuel per hour, giving the UAV an endurance of up to 10 hours. The planned sensor payload includes electro-optical and radar systems weighing up to 250 kg in total.

Airbus is working with French shipbuilder Naval Group, which changed its name from DCNS in June, to offer the system for the new FTI medium sized frigates that Naval Group is developing for the French Navy.

As the VSR700 is based on a manned helicopter, it made its first flight in May with Airbus Helicopters chief test pilot Olivier Gensse at an added set of controls as an Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV) demonstrator. During the maiden flight, which took place at Helicoptères Guimbal's factory at Aix-Les-Milles Aerodrome, acted as a safety pilot ready to take the controls in the event of a problem, while pushing the automatic flight control system to its limits.

“The process is in line with the usual standards,” Gensse said. “Together with the team we go through the safety procedures, then I activate the safety system so that I can intervene if necessary. On the maiden flight we then started the UAV flight control system and the aircraft took off autonomously. We also tested hovering using the autonomous flight control system and carried out various manoeuvres in stable flight. And we tested the limits of the technology. This time, landing was still my responsibility as the pilot.”

This first phase of flight testing is focused on refining the Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) before moving on to fully autonomous flights without a safety pilot. Airbus describes the AFCS as a fully digital multi-channel system with a very high level of redundancy.

It has also been flight tested from a French Navy air defence frigate to assess its flight envelope for shipboard operations.

Airbus says that the first flight of the actual VSR700 prototype is planned for 2018.


Indonesia Picks Skeldar V-200

In February, UMS Skeldar announced that it had delivered the V-200 to Indonesia, which has the world's second longest coastline. UMS Skeldar is the result of a teaming arrangement between Saab and UMS Aero, and the company is busy promoting the vehicle for maritime missions around the world.

The Skeldar V-200, a conventional helicopter with a maximum take-off weight of 235 kg including 40 kg of payload. The Indonesian defence ministry deployed the system as part of performance and acceptance tests during the fourth quarter of 2016, paving the way for the procurement and pilot training in the country.

With a rotor diameter of 4.6 m, an airframe length of 4m and a width of 1.2 m, the Skeldar V-200 is powered by a heavy-fuel two-stroke engine from Hirth, which can run on Jet A1, JP5 and JP8. This two-cylinder in line liquid-cooled engine powers the UAV to a top speed of 150 kph and a service ceiling of 3,000 m, and the company emphasises its long time between overhauls, low fuel consumption and the ability to start from cold without heaters.

The Skeldar V-200 can carry a variety of radar and electro-optical payloads, such as the Visual Detection And Ranging (ViDAR) system from Sentient Vision, which claims that it covers more than 80 times the area of conventional EO/IR systems.

ViDAR integrates multiple nine-megapixel cameras, typically between five and 10 of them, and uses image processing software to automatically detect objects on the ocean surface in real time. The system then sends the detections to the operator for further examination and analysis using the aircraft's primary sensor, which the operator can aim at any target by clicking on its symbol on the display.

With a 20 nm search swath, ViDAR can cover more than 13,360 nm2 (45,882 km2) of ocean in 12 hours at 60 kt (111.1 kph), says the company.

ViDAR is marketed for both manned and unmanned platforms, is in service with the Royal Australian Navy and has been demonstrated extensively to the US Navy and the Royal Navy.

VTOL UAVs with conventional helicopter configurations, whether based on manned aircraft or build from scratch as unmanned systems, are increasing in maturity as leading navies work out what the technology can do for them. 


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