Despite cuts to some of the unmanned components of the Army’s ambitious Future Combat Systems in the 2008 budget, the service is driving on with development of the systems and procedures for controlling aerial drones from manned helicopters. The idea, says Colonel Charles Bush, FCS chief for the Army’s force development division, is to eventually afford helicopter pilots the same “first-look” advantage that unmanned air and ground vehicles already give to ground troops. “We’re trying to use robots to be point men.”
Drones trailblazing for choppers might help the military avoid the kinds of fatal shoot-downs that have plagued the U.S. forces in Iraq in recent months. The Army and Marines lost nine helicopters in a six-week period in January and February.
The main platforms subject to manned-unmanned integration are the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, based on the Schweizer 333 civil chopper and known in FCS parlance as a “Class IV Unmanned Aerial Vehicle,” and the Block III upgrade of the Boeing AH-64D Apache attack chopper – although other UAVs and choppers are candidates for similar relationships. While the basic hardware for tethering Fire Scouts to Apaches is ready, the unique software for airborne control needs some work – and that depends on as-yet-undeveloped tactics. FCS officials say that these might require years of experimentation in realistic conditions. But experiments are on hold pending the installation of delayed control systems in the Army’s nine Fire Scouts. The birds will be in storage until at least 2010.
The Navy, which is buying two MQ-8Bs in 2008 for $16 million to add to the seven airframes it’s already purchased to pioneer drone operations from the Littoral Combat Ship, has similar plans to team UAVs and manned aircraft including helicopters. Experimentation has proved the basic hardware and concepts, but widespread implementation hinges on further refinement to software. And software depends on procedures that, like in the Army’s case, might take years to refine.
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