Northrop Grumman Discusses Future Autonomous Capabilities

By S.L. Fuller | May 14, 2017
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The MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter conducts first test flight from USS Montgomery (LCS-8) April 5 off the coast of California. (U.S. Navy photo

The MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter conducts first test flight from USS Montgomery (LCS-8) April 5 off the coast of California. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Northrop Grumman was not a new face at this year’s Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Xponential. In Dallas, the military manufacturer’s booth featured a virtual reality experience for its Fire Scout autonomous helicopter.

The Fire Scout comes in two variants: the Schweizer 333-based MQ-8B; and the Bell Helicopter 407-based MQ-8C — the latter of which got the virtual reality treatment. R&WI sat down with Flory B. Ellis, director of business development, global strategy and mission solutions for Northrop Grumman Corp. Aerospace Systems, to get an update on how both are doing in life in the U.S. Navy.


Tell us about the Fire Scout.

The MQ-8B is currently flying on the USS Coronado in the Pacific Arena, and is equipped with radar. The first at-deck came back to the states recently. The informal feedback we've had is that they really like the capability it gives them, particularly paired with a Sikorsky MH-60 Sierra. So they're utilizing it quite a bit for its radar capability and really defining the concept of operation from a maritime perspective.

What's interesting about the MQ-8B is it actually supported soft missions off of Perry-class frigates. It has 16,000 flight hours and 6,000 sorties, but really doing maritime anti-surface warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — that's kind of new with the littoral combat ship alignment, so they're really kind of learning how to use it paired with the MH-60s.

When the Navy was using the MQ-8B for the soft missions, one of the things they came back to Northrop and said was, “Look — we love it, but we want more payload and more endurance.” So we did a trade study and it turned out that the Bell Helicopter 407 provided the greatest amount of endurance with the greatest payload capacity as well. So we got double the endurance; the MQ-8C has about 12 hours. And the beauty of mirroring the technology that we used to unman the Schweizer 333 with a proven platform like the Bell 407 is we went from contract, to work, to first flight in 18 months.

Fire Scout

U.S. Coast Guard air crews unhook a Fire Scout UAS during a test on the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf near Los Angeles, Dec. 5, 2014. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Why did Northrop Grumman decide to use a manned platform for Fire Scout instead of moving to a dedicated unmanned platform? The manned helicopter was designed to carry people, which is a heavier design.

There's always the option to take out the weight and redesign the doors. However, we have other ways of getting greater endurance out of the air vehicle through recuperators and other methods. Globalhawk is a perfect example — doing a clean-sheet design is exactly what you want to do. But in this particular case, being able to take that manned helicopter and make it unmanned not only adds the benefit of having that proven technology for a quick development cycle, but as the FAA continues to look at airworthiness and airspace integration, there's no question that having an air vehicle that has already gone through that in a manned capacity, the path to that from an unmanned capability is much, much easier.

So I'm not saying there's not a place for clean-sheet designs, but we think that the Fire Scout is frankly just the right path forward; the most affordable and the most sustainable.

Do you see a civil application in Fire Scout’s future?

Absolutely. The beauty of having something like Fire Scout — although, you know we do operate it in Class D airspace — it's a military asset; it has the military clearances. Once you start moving to civilian, I think it's going to be incumbent upon the operator to work with the FAA to start really breaking down and figuring out how we're going to do that. But there's no question in my mind that once that happens, the Fire Scout and other systems like it will have wide civilian applications.

We get questions about it all the time: homeland security, border. I mean I think everyone has an idea on how you can utilize the system, and the beauty of it is it is built to be versatile; it was built to have payload swapped out very, very easily. So it really could, and I think will, have unbelievable applications.

Is manned/unmanned teaming the best application for Fire Scout?

You can operate the Fire Scout in a manned/unmanned teaming — it's called MUMT. But it showed that it could operate on its own. When it was doing the soft missions that was coming off the Perry-class frigates, it was operating in a singular capacity without the teaming. It is versatile enough to be something that can augment the capability of a manned helicopter. But it also can operate as an independent unmanned system.

What's really fascinating about how the Navy developed this is when you deploy with an MH-60, you deploy with 24 people. When you deploy with an MH-60 and a Fire Scout, I don't care if it's Bravo or Charlie, and an MH-60, you deploy with 24 people. Concept of operations did not add a single person. In a place like a ship, that's important. Depending upon your flight-hour profile, you can operate a Fire Scout with 11 people. It really was built to be something that is as versatile as it can possibly be.

So there is manned/unmanned teaming concept of operation, particularly humanitarian assistance, that Fire Scout is never going to do. But there are also missions sets, amphibious assault missions and others, where all you really need is a Fire Scout.

What about unmanned/unmanned teaming?

We have started to look at things where you have cueing from some of the other systems. Northrop has played with a lot of those things. I think absolutely in the future there's going to be unmanned/unmanned teaming. We have a bunch of different manned aircraft that do a bunch of different missions; the unmanned aircraft do a whole bunch of missions. So I think as the concept of operations continue to evolve, it's going to be more and more unmanned/unmanned teaming.

Bell 407

The Fire Scout is based off the Bell Helicopter 407. Photo courtesy of Bell

What technology advancements or changes would be required for Fire Scout unmanned/unmanned teaming?

I really think the key is going to be the cultural change and how to utilize the system, pushing it to the limit and seeing where the right mission set and the right fit is. We're breaking the barrier.

I've come to Xponential for years now and the difference in this show this year compared to where it was five years ago is just amazing. Yes, I do think that typically the military are the ones to do some of those breakthroughs and leaps. But I also don't think we've never been in an environment where we have Amazons and Googles and these other companies that are really willing to push that envelope — Elon Musk, for example. That's a different paradigm.

All I'm going to say is, one of the most exciting things, for me, is that innovation always wins. And be it coming from the military or not, I think that it's coming. And what this show looks like in five years, I can't even wait to see.

What technologies do you think Northrop Grumman will bring to Xponential in five years?

Northrop, as the leader in autonomy, is always looking at what is going to be next. What we're focused on right now is advanced autonomy. When you look at unmanned systems, as I've said, people think, 'remote control piloting.' Well Northrop has never been in the remote pilot business. It has always been in autonomy. There is no joystick. It is all keyboard, point, click, pre-defined parameters. What that means, though, is that you actually have the ability to have a pilot and a mission payload operator pay far more attention as opposed to a mechanics of operating the vehicle to what you actually want them to be paying attention to, which are the threats or in a humanitarian disaster, humanitarian things.

As autonomy gets better and advances further, you have the capability to have one person monitor several because you have the air system itself taking over more and more of that capability set. Northrop is focused on both mission and cognitive autonomy. That's going to allow the air vehicle to do more and more.

Is Northrop heading down a path to artificial intelligence?

No — you're always you have a human in the loop. I want to be very clear about that: you're always, always, always going to have a human in the loop. It's really just allowing the air vehicle to automate more of the capabilities itself so that humans can do more in front of it.

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