Northrop Grumman Fire Scout: The Latest News from an Intelligent Platform

With movies such as Stealth, Eagle Eye, and iRobot portraying machines with artificial intelligence as man-made “beings” that may develop a “mind” of their own, it is no wonder why a lot of people are wary of this technology. In Stealth, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) is designed and given intelligence with neural networks – to mimic the neurological process of the human brain – so that it may learn and fly in missions with three manned aircraft. At some point in the movie, the UCAV learns to disobey orders after watching a human pilot do so, and he selects a target that would propel the United States into war. In iRobot, the main robot character, Sonny, develops feelings and emotions like a human and is programmed to disobey human orders. Whether it is through neural networks or adaptive learning techniques, each of these enjoyable science fiction movies may leave the general public concerned about the possibilities of this technology and if humans can maintain control.

So it is no surprise that when the Northrop Grumman RQ/MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing UAV flew off course and into restricted airspace over Washington, DC on August 2, people were concerned. Actually, it was not announced until August 25, after media outlets had been questioning the occurrence. According to an article by Christopher P. Cavas, Fire Scouts have been flying out of Webster Field near Patuxent River, Maryland and have logged over 1000 flight hours since December 2006 and this has been the first incident marring its flight record. On August 2, the UAV took off and flew for about 75 minutes with routine behavior until ground operators lost the control link. With this loss of signal the aircraft should have automatically flown back to its base; however, it flew approximately 23 miles on a different course and entered the National Capital Region restricted airspace. The link was restored and the engineers commanded the UAV to return to its base at Webster Field, where it landed safely. Fire Scout program manager Capt. Tim Dunigan attributed the off-course flight path to be due to “a software anomaly that allowed the aircraft not to follow its pre-programmed flight procedures”. Engineers have corrected this issue, and the Fire Scout has resumed flights as of September 20. The bigger question now is, “How will this affect the FAA and their decisions regarding unmanned aircraft in US airspace?”

Despite this program snag, the RQ/MQ-8B will continue flight testing in Yuma, Arizona, a far less-densely populated area than the greater DC suburbs. Once the software issue has been corrected and validated, the flights may also resume from Webster Field. According to Northrop Grumman’s website this aircraft, based on the Schweizer 330 helicopter, will support the US Armed Forces through “unprecedented situation awareness” and “precision targeting”. The Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land from any aviation-capable warship and it may also safely land at unprepared sites near a contact soldier if necessary. According to Andreas Parsch, the Fire Scout has a 3-blade rotor with a diameter of 27.5 feet that is powered by a Rolls Royce/Allison 250-C20W turboshaft engine. It has the capability of flying at a maximum altitude of 20,000 feet, and can fly at speeds up to 144 mph (231 km/h). Depending on the payload (maximum payload is 600 lbs) and the UAV variant, the mission length can range between 5 – 8 hours. With such a robust platform, hopefully engineers can learn from this error and prevent similar occurrences in the future so the United States can continue to develop intelligent UAVs to assist our Armed Forces.

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