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U.S. Navy turns to Linux to run its drone fleet

A deal will pay giant military contractor Raytheon about $28 million to install the operating system on its vertical take off and landing (VTOL) drones.

The Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Navy Fire Scout aboard the USS McInerny, the only type of drone the Navy owns that will be controlled by Linux, under a new contract with Raytheon.
Northrop Grumman

Seeming eager to avoid potential malware attacks that could cripple its drone fleet, the U.S. Navy will begin installing Linux to control some of its autonomous flying vehicles.

The contract, which is worth $27,883,883, calls for a "Linux transition on the tactical control system software for vertical take-off (VTOL) unmanned air vehicle ground control stations."

According to The Register, the Navy has just one VTOL drone model, of which it hopes to eventually have 168, Northrop Grumman's MQ-8B Fire Scout, which "has the ability to autonomously take off and land on any aviation-capable warship and at prepared and unprepared landing zones in proximity to the soldier in contact."

The Navy's MQ-8B Fire Scout has already been deployed to sea for use off Latin America to search for drug smugglers. The unmanned rotorcraft can fly for more than six hours on a tank of gas, the Navy says, with a top speed of about 85 knots and a ceiling of roughly 20,000 feet.

The U.S. military is not new to Linux, and has learned from past problems with less-reliable operating systems. "While the US military has been a growing user of Linux, the contract might also have something to do with the swabbies learning from the mistakes made by the flyboys and girls in the US Air Force," The Register wrote. "After a malware attack on the Air Force's Windows-based drone-control system last year, there has been a wholesale move to Linux for security reasons."

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense is also prepared for the Linux integration, and has put out guidelines on how its agencies can use open-source code.

"The US government can directly combine GPL and proprietary/classified software into a single program arbitrarily, as long as the result is never conveyed outside the U.S. government, but this approach should not be taken lightly," the guidelines state. "When taking this approach, contractors hired to modify the software must not retain copyright or other rights to the result (else the software would be conveyed outside the US government.)"