In the dawning era of unmanned air combat so many "new ideas" are actually far from fresh. It is stunning to examine unmanned technologies from decades ago, and realize just how far ahead of their time they truly were. One such weapon system that was less than famous but highly innovative was vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Gryodyne QH-50 DASH.
The "Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter" (DASH) was developed out of a pressing need to bring more airborne anti-submarine capabilities to the US Navy fleet in the late 1950s, a time when the USSR was building submarines at a breathtaking rate. Additionally, many of the US Navy's WWII era surface combatants simply did not have the deck-space to embark a full size helicopter, yet upgrades to these ships' sonar systems allowed them to remain relevant for decades after the Japanese surrendered. What resulted was a mismatch between being able to detect an enemy submarine and being able to actually attack that detected submarine, as the ship's onboard weaponry could not range out to the horizon of its sensor capabilities. With all this in mind, the Gryodyne QH-50 DASH was born and fielded to the US Navy surface fleet by the hundreds by around 1960.
The little unmanned helicopter weighed well over a ton fully armed, cruised at over 50 knots and sported a counter rotating rotor system (coaxial), which eliminated the need for a complicated tail rotor, while also reducing the craft's "footprint." DASH had the ability to haul a pair of Mk.44 acoustic torpedoes, or an mk.17 nuclear mine (yes nuclear!), a couple dozen miles from its mothership. The idea was fairly simple, once the ship's combat information center detected a hostile Russian sub within its midst, the little drone would fly out to the point of detection and unleash its deadly payload. The hunted sub really would have little early warning before the torpedo splashed down into the water and began its terminal attack phase, or if the Mk.17 was utilized, its chances of survival were almost nonexistent.
Although simple in concept, the diminutive QH-50′s really did represent a large force multiplier when it came to America's rapidly evolving anti-submarine warfare capabilities and vastly increased a dated destroyer's "sphere of engagement." Looking back now, what was so ahead of its time was the QH-50′s means of control. Much like the latest and greatest unmanned aircraft of today, the helicopter utilized a now familiar two tier command and control system. An operator on the deck of the ship would control the helicopter manually during its launch and recovery while an operator in the combat information center, deep within the bowels of the ship, would control the drone during its mission using a semi-autonomous interface.
Although the complexity of commands that could be executed by the unmanned helicopter were a far cry from modern systems, and its line of sight communications link was less than perfectly stable, the designers of the QH-50 had worked a similar, albeit comparatively crude, control system as cutting edge semi-autonomous unmanned aircraft systems like the Global Hawk sport today.
The DASH spent over a decade in service, from about 1960 to 1970, and many were lost due to malfunctions, although expendability was part of the original design concept. New US Navy ships were equipped to carry larger, more capable helicopters, and emerging long-range weaponry was up to the task of attacking submarines at great distances. None-the-less, the robotic choppers' unique capabilities were also used for other functions. These duties included target towing, vertical replenishment (a capability just being tested now via Lockheed's unmanned K-Max), and directing naval gunfire for marine beach landings in a similar fashion to the highly publicized Iowa Class Battleship based RQ-2 Shadow's mission during the first Gulf War.
Where the QH-50 really shined was as an experimental platforms used for developing and proving new weapons concepts and technologies. This was especially true when the little chopper was fitted with cameras for a true man-in-the-loop control interface. For decades DASH served in this role under various guises. It was even used as proof of concept demonstrator for a robotic hunter and killer drone that was intended to go after gun emplacements and high value targets in Vietnam.
Under the NIGHT PANTHER and NIGHT GAZELLE programs, the QH-50 was armed with low light TV cameras, doppler radar, grenades and even a swiveling machine gun. A beyond line of sight data link was also tested via mounting a relay system high above the battlefield on a balloon. A laser designation system was later added to a test QH-50 and laser guided rockets were developed as its weapon of choice. Some 40+ years after these tests, laser rockets are just now reemerging as a fantastically relevant armament for both large manned aircraft and smaller drones alike.The QH-50 was apparently so good at being adapted to testing duties that a small gaggle of the drones continued providing targeting towing and development capabilities at White Sands Missile Range until 2006, just as the Navy's "cutting edge" Fire Scout unmanned chopper program was beginning to mature.
Amazingly, the concept of a ship deployed light unmanned helicopter for surveillance and attack duties would re-emerge fifty years after the QH-50's heyday in the form of the RQ-8 Fire Scout. In many ways, the Fire Scout is the aircraft that the designers of QH-50 likely dreamed of, with the ability to target and engage the enemy over the horizon, from the deck of almost any surface combatant.
The Fire Scout, in the form of the MQ-8B, and the larger Bell Jet Ranger based MQ-8C, is quietly evolving into the modular flying "swiss army knife" of the American flotilla. Surveillance, search and rescue, attack, and eventually anti-submarine warfare and material conveyance will become a function of pointing and clicking a mouse instead of "flying by the seat of your pants." Once fielded in mass, these unmanned systems will allow for the most diminutive of naval vessels to possess the ability to reach far over the horizon and deliver a deadly or life saving payload without putting an operator at risk.
As innovative as the Fire Scout or unmanned K-Max may seem, their roots began to grow over a half century ago, in a little known, but highly innovative turbine powered pocket copter known as the QH-50 DASH. An aircraft that remains to this day the Navy's only widely deployed vertical takeoff and landing drone, and the grandfather of the Fire Scout, a weapons concept that is considered incredibly relevant over 50 years after the DASH's first deployment.
As with so many drone concepts being fielded today, the genesis of such capabilities can be found in the golden era of the jet engine, a time when shear creativity often outpaced technological and automation know-how. Now in an age of reliable and secure data-links, and the silicon chip for that matter, these concepts have come full circle and are finally getting the chance to change aerial warfare once an for all.
Photos via US Navy, Gyrodyne, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, public domain.