DSEi: Qinetiq, Northrop offer UK unmanned Gazelle conversion

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Qinetiq has joined forces with Northrop Grumman to offer what it has described as a low-cost, short-term solution for an emerging Royal Navy requirement to field a vertical take-off and landing unmanned air system (VTUAS).

The companies are proposing a demonstration programme which would take one of the UK's Eurocopter Gazelle light helicopters and equip it with the vehicle management system equipment from the US Navy's Northrop MQ-8B Fire Scout.

Use of the aircraft over the next few years would help inform the navy's requirements and decision-making process, as it seeks to acquire an operational VTUAS post-2020, said Jeremy Howitt, Qinetiq's assistant technical director, avionics.

gazelle uav, qinetiq
 © Qinetiq
The proposal would modify a Gazelle light helicopter with the vehicle management system equipment from the US Navy's Northrop MQ-8B Fire Scout

"Using the Gazelle as a platform makes sense - it's a proven system with low support and operating costs. We could bring in a capability a lot sooner than the navy currently believes is possible," he said.

Qinetiq would be responsible for programme management and integration activities under the proposal, which would also include flight test activities from the West Wales UAV Centre at Aberporth.

"Unmanning an aircraft is the relatively easy part. The difficult part is providing the multiple levels of redundancy and failure management required that allows you to deliver military effect," he added.

"We could do an initial demonstration within 12 months, and within the order of £10 million [$15.8 million]," Howitt said at the Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi) exhibition in London.

Some discussions have been held with senior navy officials, but funding is not yet in place for the service's proposed tactical maritime UAS programme. If advanced, this could deliver an operational capability by around 2024.

Northrop has already repackaged its mission equipment for the Fire Scout - which has recently been operated over Afghanistan and Libya - for integration with the Bell 407, to deliver a future MQ-8C capability to the US Navy.

The service recently announced plans to buy 28 of the new aircraft, which Northrop said will have an operating endurance of almost 15h.