Saturday, April 28, 2007

Prognosticating about the future of the 5th Military Service

Entering the prognostication zone; stand-by...

A year ago, Bell crashed a UAV:
Prototype Tiltrotor UAV Crashed April 5, 2006

Bell Helicopter may be going back to the drawing board, but it isn’t giving up on its quest to develop unmanned aircraft systems.

On April 5, Bell lost the only prototype of its TR-918 Eagle Eye tiltrotor UAV in a test flight crash. All had been going well during the flight when the Eagle Eye, flying at about 300 feet above the ground, suddenly lost power. Investigators said an unknown glitch caused the fuel supply to be cut to the aircraft's engine.

Despite the setback, however, Bell's executive director of vertical unmanned aircraft programs, Bob Ellithorpe, says the company is pressing on with its UAV plans. He told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Bell plans to build another version of the Eagle Eye to continue the testing and development, but not until the crash investigation is complete so that improvements can be incorporated.

"We have high confidence in the flight-control systems," said Ellithorpe, "and we have high confidence in the data link."

Bell launched the Eagle Eye program several years ago, after an order from the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard funded development of one version of the UAV, the TR-916, which would be equipped with surveillance systems for operation from ships at sea.

Due to the cost of re-equipping its entire fleet of cutters and patrol aircraft, however, the Coast Guard has since delayed funding for the Eagle Eye -- but Bell launched its own effort, aimed at producing a less complex version of the UAV, the TR-918, that could be sold to the US military or law enforcement agencies.

Ellithorpe says that the Eagle Eye will fly again... but not before Bell learns its lessons from the accident so improvements can be made.

"What did we learn in flight test? What did we learn in the mishap? Those will go into the calculation of what comes next," Ellithorpe said.

And as far as Bell's UAV plans after the Eagle Eye? Well, Bell makes helicopters, after all... and Ellithorpe says they're not overlooking the opportunity to develop an unmanned helicopter.
The TR-916, pictured here with this post, is dead in the water. While the nation's Fifth Military Service has had success with recapitalization on the aviation side of Deepwater, don't expect them to continue with the UAV idea. As the smallest military service, she's not in a position to be cutting edge with technology. Tried and true. Solid. Developed and built on somebody else's nickel. That's what is needed. Cutting-edge tilt-rotor, or even just rotary-wing, able to land on a bouncing cutter landing deck the size of a postage stamp just isn't going to be cost-effective.

My crystal ball: The Service is going to back out of the UAV world, totally. There might not even be an announcement, it'll just no longer be there. No mention. No pictures. Nada.

Here's another prediction: The Service is going to drop the term Deepwater, by and large, and go back to a more standard acquisition approach.

1 comment:

  1. "Cutting-edge tilt-rotor, or even just rotary-wing, able to land on a bouncing cutter landing deck the size of a postage stamp just isn't going to be cost-effective."

    The NAVY was trying to fly unmanned rotary wing helicopters off destroyers in the 1960's - look up DASH. Here's a link to one site: