Northrop Grumman has completed extreme weather testing of an unmanned helicopter surveillance system in the Al Gharbia desert. Nearly two weeks of testing the US defence contractor's MQ-8 Fire Scout at a military base in the Western Region was conducted, helping to ready the helicopter for delivery to its first and only customer so far, the US Navy, in 2012.
Last year, Northrop officials said the UAE was one of more than 15 nations that had expressed interest in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which costs about US$15 million (Dh55m), according to Deagel.com, the military data provider. Northrop provides the navigation technology that allows it to fly unmanned, while other key components are provided by Schweitzer, Rolls-Royce, Flir Systems and L-3 Communications.
The trials, which took place this month, highlight the UAE's growing interest in unmanned systems. Defense News reported a proposed deal for the UAE to buy Italian trainer jets included a provision for the two to collaborate on UAV technology. The UAE is also developing a state-backed investment firm specialising in the technology, Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments (ADASI). ADASI hosted the Northrop trials and last year the two signed a "proprietary information exchange", linking the Abu Dhabi firm with one of the world's most advanced UAV companies to collaborate on a system adapted to the Middle East's hot, humid conditions.
Ali al Yafei, the chief executive of ADASI, said Fire Scout had many unique capabilities. "We're looking forward to reviewing the results of this in-country testing," Mr al Yafei said. John Brooks, the president of Northrop Grumman International, said yesterday his firm saw the UAE as its top priority outside the US. "If they have a requirement for the Fire Scout, we are here to be a partner with them," Mr Brooks said.
Northrop is a major supplier to the UAE Armed Forces, providing a radar system onboard the nation's fleet of F-16s, and its battle management system, which is a computer network that will gather radar data to co-ordinate the launch of missiles and fighter jets. It is also campaigning to supply the UAE with its latest airborne early warning aircraft, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Northrop has produced high-profile military planes including the B2 stealth bomber. But as many of its US rivals have won major aircraft contracts from the US department of defence, such as Lockheed Martin's F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, Northrop has sought to regain its dominant position through the emerging UAV industry.
It also produces the 10-tonne Global Hawk, which can reach 20,000 metres in altitude and fly for 36 hours at a time. Fire Scout is being marketed as a surveillance tool - an "unblinking eye in the sky" - but it can also carry cargo in conflict zones, minimising the danger for pilots. In April, a Fire Scout being tested by the US Navy in the Pacific Ocean identified a "high-speed" drug-running speedboat and tracked it for three hours before a mother ship detained the boat and confiscated 60kg of cocaine.
The UAE demonstrations included numerous take-offs and landings in hot, windy and sandy conditions in temperatures up to 47įC, and at altitudes of up to 3,000 metres, Northrop said. It included tests where the Fire Scout operated beyond the horizon of its ground-based operators, the company said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org