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Northrop Fixes Major Flaws In Navy Drone

Posted by Carlo Munoz on

Washington: The Navy has fixed the fatal flaws that put the future of its newest unmanned drone in jeopardy, and is now on track to get the aircraft into final testing by the end of this year.

The FireScout unmanned aerial vehicle earned a scathing review by DoD’s test and evaluation shop during 2009 test flights.

In the June 29 review sent to Capitol Hill, Michael Gilmore, director of the testing and evaluation directorate, said the aircraft was unfit to perform real-time intelligence gathering operations, due to the “fragile nature” of the UAV’s communication and data links.

Gilmore’s report cast a shadow over the expensive drone program, at a time when DoD is looking to tighten spending on big-ticket service programs.

The FireScout often struggled to even get off the deck during maritime operations, according to the June report. While flying off the Navy frigate USS Halyburton, the UAV was continually plagued by “late launches and interrupted flights,” according to Gilmore.

The reason was that communications links from the ship to the UAV would “drop out unexpectedly,” forcing Navy personnel to delay the flights or scrub them entirely, Gilmore wrote. As a result, FireScout achieved a hapless 54 percent mission success rate during its time on the Halyburton.

That failure also put in doubt the Pentagon’s goal of having the FireScout average 300 flight hours a month once it was fully operational.

But Northrop Grumman says the datalink failures on the Halyburton had nothing to do with the drone or the ship-board communication system.

The problem was one of the two antennas on the ship malfunctioned, causing the connections to break down, George Vardoulakis, vice president for tactical unmanned systems, told us. “It was just a bad piece of hardware,” he said.

The company has since gone back and fixed the antenna and FireScout has not experienced any failures since, Vardoulakis said.

During the most recent round of flight tests in Afghanistan, beginning in May, FireScout exceeded the 300-hour mark each month during the three-month drill. By the end of July, the drone had logged nearly 400 hours in the air.

During that time, the UAV did not experience a single loss of communication, according to Vardoulakis. “Most of what was said in that report has been fixed. It is behind us,” he said.

But program officials still have to fix some maintenance and supply chain issues as the FireScout moves through operational evaluation testing — the final step before full deployment — at the end of this year.

“Those are still real issues that we and the Navy are dealing with,” he said.

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