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  (Source: Walt Disney)
"Get me to the chopper!" -- new UAVs combined LADAR, infrared and traditional HD imaging

The U.S. Navy's new robocopter is armed to the teeth with the latest in high-tech surveillance gadgets.  Equipped with a Multi-Mode Sensor Seeker (MMSS) -- a package of HD cameras, mid-range infrared sensors and LADAR; a 3D mapping device that utilizes a long-range, high-res, eye-safe laser -- the robocopter, christened "Fire Scout", will patrol the high seas hunting for pirates.

Piracy has increasingly become a headache for industrialized nations -- and a chief priority for the U.S. Navy.  The problem is that pirates typically pirate small, hard-to-detect ships, but have created huge disruptions hijacking fuel tankers and other pricey cargo in hopes of a ransom.

Many of the pirates come from impoverished regions like Somalia, which border shipping lanes from the Middle East.

The new copter is a possible solution, cooked up by the Office of Naval Research's Naval Air Warfare and Weapons Department (NAWWD) and Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) branches.  

Ken Heeke, ONR NAWWD program officer describes Fire Scout, stating, "Sailors who control robotic systems can become overloaded with data, often sifting through hours of streaming video searching for a single ship.  The automatic target recognition software gives Fire Scout the ability to distinguish target boats in congested coastal waters using LADAR, and it sends that information to human operators, who can then analyze those vessels in a 3-D picture."

LADAR in action
LADAR in action -- step 1, ship is spotted by system. [Image Source: Utah State Univ.]

LADAR demo 2
LADAR in action -- step 2, the algorithms spot the ship in 3D. [Image Source: Utah State Univ.]

Dean Cook, principal investigator at the ONR NAWCWD adds, "The 3-D data gives you a leg up on target identification.  Infrared and visible cameras produce 2-D pictures, and objects in them can be difficult to automatically identify. With LADAR data, each pixel corresponds to a 3-D point in space, so the automatic target recognition algorithm can calculate the dimensions of an object and compare them to those in a database."

The LADAR system is being developed [PDF] in collaboration with Utah State University, a key academic partner.

More work has to be done testing-wise before this super-copter can get down to business battling the pirate masses.  The algorithms have been tested by land-based systems targeting naval vessels, but the first air-to-naval tests will be conducted with a BRITE Star II turret aboard a larger manned helicopter.

If those tests go well, Fire Scout should be almost ready to take to the air, and pirates ought to be shaking in their boots.

Aside from pirates, the U.S. Navy is looking to use drone scouts for a variety of other advanced sea warfare purposes.

Sources: ONR [press release], Utah State [LADAR PDF]

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Firescout is grounded
RE: Firescout is grounded
By Samus on 4/9/2012 5:58:01 PM , Rating: 2
I read that the other day, and all I could think about is the plethora of Northrup Grumman failures over the last few years.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin UAV's have excellent track records.

RE: Firescout is grounded
By Man Cave on 4/9/2012 7:50:14 PM , Rating: 2
I think they will figure it out. Seems like some cool tech!

Article Title
By GuinnessKMF on 4/10/2012 9:13:14 AM , Rating: 2
I read the article title and almost didn't want to read the article because I thought there would be no way the real story would live up to what I had concocted in my head.


RE: Article Title
By PrinceGaz on 4/10/2012 10:51:29 AM , Rating: 3
It would be better if the title was "Navy Robocopters Hunt Down Naval Pirates", because most of us here probably think of piracy mainly in the software context, rather than taking over control by force of a ship sailing the high seas.

RE: Article Title
By GuinnessKMF on 4/10/2012 3:01:04 PM , Rating: 2
No, I was picturing flying robocops hunting down pirates of yore, eyepatches and wooden legs. As directed by Michael Bay.

By Gondor on 4/10/2012 10:14:43 AM , Rating: 2
The U.S. Navy's new robocopter is armed to the teeth with the latest in high-tech surveillance gadgets.

They should have armed it with a couple of Hellfires in addition to those spying gadgets.

RE: Meh
By Jaybus on 4/10/2012 12:37:06 PM , Rating: 2
And guarantee the deaths of the ship's crew, not to mention destruction of the cargo? Better to hunt them down, trap them, and have Marine snipers take them out one at a time until they surrender. If they start offing the stolen ship's crew, then a team of Marines can board them. They have a pretty good record of saving most of the hostages.

On the other hand, it's pretty obvious that the pirates are not taking small, outboard motor boats 200 km out to sea. They couldn't possibly have enough fuel. So, if you do find a mother ship, then by all means launch a couple of fighters and blow it out of the water.

RE: Meh
By Gondor on 4/11/2012 2:59:47 AM , Rating: 2
No, to destroy their land bases and infrastructure (raiding craft etc.). Hellfire isn't a dedicated air-to-sea missile anyway, these would be Harpoons.

Peace and prosperity, aka a job!
By DarkUltra on 4/10/2012 2:58:53 PM , Rating: 2
We should hopefully see a decline in pirate cases as Somalia recovers from decades of civil war. Somalians are returning to their country and we see great progress for the time being. I believe these pirates wouldn't pirate if they had a job. Seeing those rich ships sail by must seem awfully unfair.

RE: Peace and prosperity, aka a job!
By ritualm on 4/10/2012 5:48:13 PM , Rating: 2
A decline in naval piracy? When being a waterborne threat is many factors more profitable than what the average Somali job pays a year, good luck with that.

Whoever that wrote the NYT article is smoking magical dust.

RE: Peace and prosperity, aka a job!
By Paj on 4/12/2012 12:57:29 PM , Rating: 2
Being a pirate is probably more profitable than your job too. In fact, its probably many orders of magnitude more profitable than my job, or many others jobs too.

People turn to crime when they feel like they have nothing left to lose. This is relative from place to place, but for many Somalis, having a job is now something to lose.

The best solution is to rehabilitate the economy, and make the general populace feel safe. This is what is happening.

Of course, we could deploy more hideously expensive, error-prone robotic helicopters to take pictures of boats. That might work too.

By 1ceTr0n on 4/9/2012 7:47:16 PM , Rating: 2
Operation "Starscream"?

By vittek4 on 4/10/2012 8:33:22 PM , Rating: 2
My dad is a Somalian pirate. Wah.

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