Coast Guard officials have shelved their once-ambitious plan to spend upward of $1 billion on Bell Helicopter’s proposed Eagle Eye unmanned aerial vehicle system, according to a Feb. 14 story in the Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas, link below).
The Coast Guard is still looking for the right unmanned aircraft for long-range surveillance, but Rear Adm. Gary Blore said in an interview Wednesday [with the Star-Telegram] that the service had decided not to pay Bell for further work on its mini-tiltrotor UAV.
When the Eagle Eye was selected by the Coast Guard in 2002 as its ship-borne unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, Blore said, service officials thought that the aircraft was nearly ready for production.
Now, Blore said, “we don’t see the technology or the production readiness … where it needs to be” after spending more than $100 million on the program. “It needs a lot of developmental work, and unfortunately we don’t have a lot of money for developmental work.”
Blore, the Coast Guard’s top acquisition officer, said the decision was made easier when he saw how much the Navy has invested — $500 million to $750 million — in Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout drone helicopter, which is much further along than Eagle Eye but still isn’t production-ready.
“The Coast Guard doesn’t have that kind of money,” Blore said.
Bell spokesman Mike Cox said that company officials had not been told that the Coast Guard had made a final decision. “It’s on our back burner, but we believe in the program. We still think it’s a good system.”
Bell still has “some people working on the program at a minimal level,” Cox said.
Coast Guard officials selected the Eagle Eye in 2002 as part of a $12 billion, 20-year program known as Deepwater that aimed to upgrade the service’s fleet of cutters, patrol boats and aircraft.
The program was being managed by a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, with Bell being a subcontractor to Lockheed.
The initial plan called for buying 69 Eagle Eye aircraft and 50 control stations, which Bell officials estimated could be worth $1 billion in orders.
Bell developed the Eagle Eye concept — sort of a miniature V-22 Osprey — in the mid-1990s under a Navy contract and developed a prototype aircraft that flew some demonstration flights.
As proposed for the Coast Guard, the small aircraft — 17.9 feet long with a wingspan of just 15.9 feet—would have a single, small turbine engine powering a tilting rotor on the end of each wing. Like the V-22, it could fly faster than a helicopter but land and take off vertically.
The aircraft was to be deployed aboard a new generation of fast, longer-range Coast Guard cutters and would be remotely piloted to patrol wide areas for long periods and inspect ships or other targets. It was to have been equipped with cameras and other surveillance devices that would transmit pictures and data in real time.
Bell was supposed to produce three prototypes for delivery beginning in 2006. But as the Deepwater program ran into delays and budget problems, Coast Guard officials began scaling back and reassessing programs and had not spent much on Eagle Eye in the last couple of years. In October, service officials said they had “frozen” funding while they reassessed the service’s requirements for unmanned aircraft.
Steve Zaloga, an analyst specializing in UAVs for the Forecast International aerospace consulting firm, said the Coast Guard’s decision is “not so much they’re not interested in Eagle Eye as that Deepwater has gotten in deep doo.”
Blore said the Coast Guard will take its time to review options for UAVs and will probably consider acquiring either the Fire Scout for use on ships or a land-based drones such as the Predator, which is in use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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