Late last year, on Dec. 10, 2010, a vertical unmanned air system (VUAS) called Fire-X, jointly developed by Northrop Grumman and Bell Helicopter, completed its first fully autonomous flight at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The first flight, which was achieved only 11 months after development began, involved a short-duration hover to validate safe and reliable autonomous flight. This was achieved by integrating Fire Scout’s autonomous systems developed for the U.S. Navy with the highly successful Bell 407 helicopter.
Bob Davis answers Rotor & Wing’s questions on how the Fire-X project started and how its ongoing development plans are shaping up.
Rotor & Wing: When was the idea of creating an unmanned version of the Bell 407 first envisaged, and by whom?
Bob Davis: Northrop Grumman has continuously studied the Department of Defense vertical unmanned air system (VUAS) market since initiation of the Fire Scout program in 2000. In 2009, evolving intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting (ISRT) and cargo UAS interests precipitated our analysis of various rotorcraft to determine which were better suited to low risk, inexpensive and expedient unmanning.
This would be accomplished by transplanting the MQ-8B Fire Scout’s proven suite of avionics and software capabilities. The Bell 407 was one of several helicopters that are well suited to our criteria, which is what led to our relationship with Bell Helicopter. Activities last year resulted in the successful first flight demonstration in December—highlighting our unmanning expertise.
R&W: Why was the Bell 407 selected as the platform?
Davis: The Bell 407 helicopter is FAA-certified and has been in continuous production since 1996, with more than 1,000 vehicles in operation around the world. The airframe has accumulated more than 2.5 million flight hours. It is highly reliable, well characterized in terms of flight performance in a wide variety of environments, and is one of the most economical helicopters in the world. Its performance is particularly well matched to evolving U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Army ISRT and cargo UAS performance requirements.
R&W: Has Northrop Grumman conducted any research that indicates the potential size of the market (internally/internationally) of vertical unmanned aircraft systems such as the Fire-X? If so, can you give an estimate of the size? If not, can you name a list of potential clients who are beginning to consider a program of this type?
Davis: Our research indicates that all DoD service components and joint commands, including the U.S. Coast Guard, have expanded interest in VUAS capabilities to address their various missions. We are also aware of many similar international interests.
R&W: Where has the funding for the development of the Fire-X come from? Has the program had government funding?
Davis: By design, Fire-X development has been completely funded by Northrop Grumman and Bell Helicopter.
R&W: Is this an indication that the rotary-wing side of military aviation is inexorably heading towards more and more unmanned platforms?
Davis: We observe that the military is moving steadily in the direction of routine use of a mix of manned and unmanned platforms for execution of a number of different missions. We believe this will continue DoD’s acquisition of increased numbers of VUAS in the future.
R&W: Has the Northrop Grumman / Bell Helicopter relationship considered testing on any other of Bell's platforms: V-22, AH-1Z? Is this likely?
Davis: We are currently focused on continued flights of the Fire-X development and demonstration aircraft. However, the use of Northrop Grumman’s highly proven and readily adaptable unmanned systems architecture, avionics and software capabilities in other Bell platforms is an obvious option as we continue to study our customers’ objectives and requirements.
R&W: Can you provide a roadmap of the principle milestones over the next 24 months regarding the development of the Fire-X?
Davis: The successful first autonomous flight paves the way for additional cargo and ISR test flights to demonstrate Fire-X’s capabilities for our customers. Our activities in 2011 will be guided by the specific needs of our customers in meeting their ISRT and Cargo UAS operational needs in the future.
R&W: On Dec. 2, 2010, Naval Air Systems Command awarded two fixed-price contracts to Boeing/Frontier Systems and Lockheed Martin for Cargo Unmanned Aircraft System services for $29.9 and $45.8 million, respectively. You seem to have missed an important bid and contract. Which organization now is your main target?
Davis: The Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Immediate Deployment Cargo UAS services solicitation required prior cargo UAS demonstration in order to be considered for award. In June 2010 we met with NAVAIR in regards to the Immediate Cargo UAS deployment requirements. At that time we advised the Navy and Marine Corps that we would not submit a bid in response to the solicitation because we would not be able to perform the required qualifying demonstration at the required date.
It is important to know that in less than a year we designed, developed, integrated and flight demonstrated a new entrant in the DoD VUAS ISRT and cargo UAS marketplace, an accomplishment that is well appreciated by our many customers. It is clear that there will be a number of opportunities that follow the USMC’s Immediate Cargo UAS deployment.
R&W: Given the necessary funding and customer order, when would you expect to deliver an IoC for the first Fire-X aircraft?
Davis: We prefer for you to speak with those individuals in each of the respective DoD components who are responsible for future VUAS acquisition in regard to their plans and deployment objectives.