In 100 years of naval aviation, only the most experienced combat pilots have performed the difficult task of launching an attack on a nearby target and returning the aircraft to a ship as it bobs in the ocean.
Now that tricky task is being turned over to unmanned drones.
With a $17-million contract, the U.S. Navy has taken the first step in arming its fleet of drone helicopters with laser-guided missiles to blast enemy targets. The Northrop Grumman Corp.-made MQ-8B Fire Scout would be Navy’s first sea-based unmanned system to carry weapons when it’s delivered within 15 months.
“It’s a very significant moment in naval history,” said Mark L. Evans, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command. “The weaponization of this aircraft represents a quantum leap in technology compared to what has come before.”
The military believes the Fire Scout, which is remotely controlled by a pilot on a ship, is ideal in its ability to hover and attack hostile drug runners, pirates and battleships.
The estimated $8-million drone, developed by Northrop engineers in Rancho Bernardo, was first deployed to war zones in Afghanistan and Libya this year. The company has made 24 of the choppers for the Navy already, but their use has been limited to surveillance and reconnaissance work.
As of now, the drone can spot hostile threats, but not eliminate them.
“By arming Fire Scout, the Navy will have a system that can locate and prosecute targets of interest,” said George Vardoulakis, Northrop’s vice president for tactical unmanned systems. “This capability...lessens the need to put our soldiers in harm’s way.”
Robotic fixed-wing planes operated by the Air Force and CIA, such as the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, already play a critical role in modern warfare, taking out enemy combatants with missile strikes in the skies above Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
But that hasn’t been the case for robotic helicopters, which are smaller and present more of a challenge to fit with bulky weapons.
It’s not for lack of trying. Northrop has been working to arm the Fire Scout for years. In 2006, the company jury-rigged the aircraft with a missile in a demonstration flight at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
But it wasn’t until Tuesday’s announcement that Northrop had a contract to arm the drone. Final delivery of a weaponized Fire Scout is expected by March 2013, Northrop said.
“Arming the system is part of a natural evolution,” said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace expert with Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based research firm. As the technology moves forward, drones “will be expected to carry out more complex missions,” Finnegan said.
But the Fire Scout has experienced problems in the past, he said.
In June, a robotic chopper was being flown by the Navy in NATO’s support mission of the Libyan rebels when it was shot down.
In a test flight last August from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., operators lost contact with a Fire Scout that wandered into restricted airspace near Washington. Navy operators were able to get control of the drone and later blamed a software problem.
Northrop said its 200 engineers in Rancho Bernardo worked with Navy officials to resolve the issue.
The Navy has an order for 168 Fire Scouts.
“Robotry is the future,” said Simon Ramo, the 98-year-old co-founder of former aerospace giant TRW Inc. -- now part of Northrop -- and author of the upcoming book “Let Robots Do the Dying.”
“Helicopters, generally speaking, are running more dangerous missions than other aircraft: They fly lower to the ground and at lower speeds,” he said. “If we can get that pilot out of harm’s way and still get a mission accomplished, then we’re gaining a great advantage.”