UAV flies into restricted space

Drone from Webster Field strays into D.C. region's off-limits air territory

Friday, Aug. 27, 2010

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U.S. Navy photo
Fire Scout puts to the test its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability during the aircraft's first deployment aboard USS McInerney in early 2010.

A rogue drone flew away from a Webster Field control center into restricted airspace on a test flight earlier this month before control was reestablished and the unmanned aerial vehicle was brought safely back to its home base in St. Inigoes.

The NAVAIR Fire Scout program has been suspended while an investigation is conducted to uncover why the aircraft flew into restricted airspace.

"We are in the final stages of the investigation and plan on briefing leadership next week. We anticipate resuming flight operations in early September," Capt. Tim Dunigan, program manager, said in a prepared statement.

The MQ-8B Fire Scout, one of four based at Webster Field in southern St. Mary's County, was flying at about 1,700 feet altitude during what was described as a routine test flight.

An operator at Webster Field lost communications with the unmanned helicopter 75 minutes into the flight. The drone, which carried no weapons, proceeded 23 miles north/northwest toward the nation's capital.

It was still about 40 miles south of the D.C. area, but within the National Capital Region airspace, which restricts such flights. Any manned or unmanned aerial vehicles must first check with the FAA to fly in the airspace.

Based on that flight trajectory, the vehicle probably did not fly outside of St. Mary's County, according to Jamie Cosgrove, public affairs officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons for NAVAIR.

Operations of the vehicle were shifted to another ground control station, according to Dunigan, and the link was restored.

"The aircraft returned to Webster Field safely without injuries, and without damage to the aircraft or vessel," according to Dunigan's statement.

Cosgrove said the incident happened in the early afternoon Aug. 2 and that it lasted about 20 minutes. Authorities, including the FAA, were notified immediately when the incident occurred, she said.

The Fire Scout looks like a small helicopter without windows and is about 32 feet long and 10 feet high.

The unmanned aerial vehicle has a speed of 110 knots and a range of 110 nautical miles from the launch site, according to a Navy description. It is built by Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems.

The routine test flight exposed a software anomaly that allowed the aircraft to not follow its preprogrammed flight procedures, according to Dunigan's statement.

"We have identified the issue and have aircraft operating restrictions that will prevent this from happening again," Dunigan said, referring to a software modification that has been developed to remove the anomaly.

The Fire Scout is in operational evaluation, still being tested from Webster Field, Cosgrove said.

"It varies, depending what the demand is for the testing," Cosgrove said when asked how often the drone is in the skies around Webster Field. She said that since its first flight in December 2006, the Fire Scout has logged more than 1,000 flight hours.

The Fire Scout is designed to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and can take off and land from aircraft carriers. It deployed aboard the USS McInerney on its first mission last year in October and returned this April on a counternarcotics trafficking deployment, which Cosgrove said had been successful.

The Navy is seeking to give the Fire Scout program a 50 percent budget boost as part of an 89-page "omnibus reprogramming request" submitted to Congress last month. The Navy Times, which obtained a copy of the funding request, reports that the Navy is seeking to shift $13 million to the program to finish operational testing aboard the frigate Halyburton.