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Navy grounds Fire Scout helicopter drones after 2 crashes

By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Navy has grounded a fleet of helicopter drones after two of the aircraft crashed overseas within a week.

Known as MQ-8B Fire Scouts, the robotic spy choppers were developed by Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers in Rancho Bernardo. Armed with high-powered cameras, radars and sensors, they were first deployed to war zones in Afghanistan and Libya last year.

On Tuesday, the Navy confirmed that it had temporarily suspended flight operations for its 14 remaining Fire Scouts while system performance and operational procedures are reviewed. It also said that the crashes resulted in no injuries or damage to other aircraft.

In the first incident, the Navy said, a Fire Scout crashed off the coast of western Africa on March 30 when it was carrying out safety and security missions. The Navy did not disclose the exact location, citing national security concerns.

Operators crash-landed the Fire Scout in the ocean after it was unable to lock onto the Navy warship Simpson’s automatic landing system — a requirement for landing aboard a ship at sea.

“After multiple approaches and exhaustive troubleshooting by operators, the aircraft was positioned a safe distance from USS Simpson and the flight was terminated,” the Navy said in a statement. “Subsequently, Simpson crew performed a nighttime recovery of the aircraft.”

On Friday, another Fire Scout crashed in Afghanistan but could not be recovered. The Navy said the cause of the incident had not been determined.

The Navy said it is conducting a thorough investigation of both incidents.

In all, the Navy has ordered 168 Fire Scouts at a total estimated program cost of $5.6 billion. So far, the Navy has accepted delivery of 16 from Northrop.

The company has about 350 employees working on the program in Rancho Bernardo. The drones are manufactured in Moss Point, Miss.

“Northrop Grumman is working closely with the U.S. Navy to determine the cause of the incidents,” Northrop spokesman Warren Comer said in a statement. “We cannot provide further information at this time pending the results of the investigation.”

The grounding order was first reported by aviation website before the Navy released information on the incidents.

The 32-foot-long Fire Scout can fly as long as eight hours, as fast as 130 mph and as high as 20,000 feet. Although takeoffs and landings are automated, the drone is remotely controlled by a pilot on a warship.

In addition to its battlefield missions, the Fire Scout has been used against piracy in the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia. It’s also been deployed to spot drug smugglers in Latin America.

In November, the Navy demonstrated that it wanted to expand the drone’s capabilities even further when it awarded a $17-million contract to Northrop to arm it with a missile. Final delivery of a weaponized Fire Scout is expected by March 2013.

“The Navy sees the promise for the aircraft to take on more diverse missions in the future,” said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace expert with Teal Group Corp., a research company in Fairfax, Va. “The program is still in its early stages.”

The Fire Scout program has experienced other problems.

In a test flight in August 2010 from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, operators lost contact with a Fire Scout that wandered into restricted airspace near Washington, D.C. Navy operators ultimately were able to get control of the drone and later blamed a software problem.

In June, a Fire Scout was shot down as it was being flown by the Navy in NATO’s support mission of the Libyan rebels.

Finnegan said that the Fire Scout’s issues are another black eye for Northrop.

Earlier this year, the Air Force said that a version of Northrop’s highflying spy drone, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, should be taken out of service because it didn’t have proper capabilities and cost too much to operate.

“There are clearly issues to be resolved here,” Finnegan said. “A lot of lessons are being learned with this technology.”

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