The US Navy has outlined the details of a 15-month competition to start later this month to select an unmanned helicopter that could be purchased in the hundreds by the end of this decade.
The medium-range, multi-role unmanned aircraft system (MRMUAS) contract has already drawn interest from at least three bidders.
Likely competitors include the Boeing A160 Hummingbird and the Northrop Grumman/Bell Helicopter MQ-8C Fire-X, which is an unmanned version of the Bell 407. US-based Lockheed Martin also last month confirmed plans to compete for the MRMUAS contract. Its options include a new version Kaman K-Max with long-endurance, or perhaps an all-new design developed by the Advanced Development Programs unit, also known as Skunk Works.
The navy plans to start the earliest phase of the competition later this month with the release of a request for proposals (RFP), according to a presentation to industry posted online on 6 September.
The RFP will lead to awards for study contracts to multiple bidders to help the service refine its expectations for the new unmanned helicopter. The study phase is scheduled to complete in January 2013. A competition to win the contract to develop the MRMUAS helicopter would begin the following month.
The navy plans to stand up the first operational unit in fiscal year 2019, although a "limited" capability could be fielded three years earlier.
The requirement was established by the US Special Operations Command in June 2009. That was two months after a navy SEAL team was called on to engage Somali pirates holding the American captain of the Maersk Alabama shipping vessel as a hostage. The SEALs' snipers killed the pirates, but only after a long stand-off in the Indian Ocean.
The MRMUAS helicopters are part of an $8.2 billion investment by the navy over the next decade in four different families of unmanned aircraft systems dedicated to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. The same aircraft could also be selected by the US Army to replace the cancelled MQ-8B Fire Scout as a vertical take-off unmanned air system.
The navy wants the MRMUAS fleet to fly missions lasting up to 8h and at least 555km (300nm) from the ship. Each aircraft would be deployed with a suite of sensor payloads, including full-motion video, electronic warfare and radar. A precision strike capability is also listed under the MRMUAS "capability needs".