Navy giving its helicopter drones a Linux upgrade

The MQ-8B Fire Scout, the Navy’s robotic helicopter drone, is getting a new virtual cockpit based on Linux.

The systems used to fly the MQ-8 Fire Scout, the robotic helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman for the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships, are about to get an upgrade—one that’s based on the Linux operating system. Raytheon has been awarded a $ 15.8 million contract to deploy a new version of the Vertical Takeoff and Landing Unmanned Air Vehicle Tactical Control System (VTUAV TCS) that takes the operator’s console off its legacy Sun Microsystems Solaris 8 platform and brings it in line with military standards for drone control platforms—allowing it to be used with other compatible unmanned aircraft.

Raytheon started development of the original TCS system more than 10 years ago as the Navy was evaluating the Fire Scout and when Solaris 8 was the approved Unix platform for many Department of Defense systems. And it remained the basis of the platform when Raytheon started delivering an upgraded version of TCS, called Block 2 Version 4, in 2007. The Navy kept adding new requirements to B2V4 for the next three years.

A Fire Scout pilot at the VTUAV TCS control console.

The latest contract, originally posted in February, calls for Raytheon to create a new version of TCS called B2VL—Block 2, Version Linux. It also calls for Raytheon to continue moving the drone control system into line with the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Unmanned Aerial System Control Segment (UCS) Architecture—a service-oriented open architecture for unmanned aircraft that will allow the plug in of new features for future drones and for parts of the TCS to be re-used for other systems across the DOD.

The Navy’s vision for the DOD open drone architecture, the Common Control System.

By moving to a Linux platform, the Navy also hopes to save money on support in the long term, making it easier to upgrade hardware. The Fire Scout program is in a bit of a holding pattern right now as Northrop Grumman works on the next version. The Navy is also slowing down its purchasing of the Littoral Combat Ships, ships the Fire Scout was originally supposed to deploy on, so the new TCS software will hopefully allow the Navy to operate other ship-based drones across the fleet.

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