U.S. Military Orders Helicopter Drones to Report for Duty
Concept art showing a Fire-X helicopter drone.
CREDIT: Northrop Grumman Corporation
A helicopter drone's help in catching cocaine smugglers at sea has encouraged the U.S. Navy to order a batch of its bigger, longer-endurance cousins. Such hover-capable robots represent a new wave of military drones that can take off and land on the pitching deck of a Navy ship, as well as haul supplies in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
The upgraded version of the Fire Scout, called the Fire-X, can carry bigger loads and fly longer missions, according to Aviation Week. That's because manufacturer Northrop Grumman took the guts out of a Fire Scout and stuffed them into a larger Bell 407 helicopter frame. The Navy ordered 28 of the Fire-X drones to help support its special operations starting in 2014.
But even competing helicopter drones that lost out on the Navy's order may still find service in other branches of the U.S. military. The Kaman K-Max and the Boeing A160T Hummingbird are both in the running to become cargo haulers for the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, AOL Defense reports.
The large helicopter drones being tested by the military so far have mostly avoided carrying weapons. But the risks of being unarmed became clear when a Fire Scout deployed by the U.S. Navy frigate Halyburton was shot down by Libyan forces under Moammar Gadhafi on June 21. Now the Navy plans to arm its robot helicopters with small air-to-surface missiles, Navy Times reports.
Even smaller helicopter drones can pack a punch. Vanguard Defense's Shadowhawk can carry grenade launchers and a laser-aimed shotgun capable of firing both lethal and less-lethal weapons.
Shadowhawks are reportedly already helping to hunt Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa, but they could also find use among police departments, according to Kit Up. And that may lead to more debate about the role of robots in subduing suspects or controlling crowds of ordinary citizens.