The US Navy wants its Fire Scout drones to grow up in a hurry.
Late last week, the Navy and Northrop Grumman sent word that the latest version of the unmanned rotorcraft, the MQ-8C Fire Scout, made its first flights on October 31. They weren't long affairs -- the first lasted 7 minutes, the second one, 9 minutes -- but the key is that the latest Fire Scout airframe got off the ground.
The first flight served to validate the autonomous control systems of the fledgling robo-copter, which was operated by a ground-based flight test team. The second saw the MQ-8C reach an altitude of 500 feet and manage a flight pattern around the airfield at the naval base at Point Mugu, Calif.
The Pentagon is better known for its unmanned aircraft like the Predator and the Global Hawk, which resemble fixed-wing airplanes, but it has also been building a small inventory of helicopter-like drones.
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Although 2016 is listed in the planning books for the newest Fire Scout's initial operational capability, the Navy said that the potential exists for early deployment in 2014. That earlier date apparently would be just fine for the urgent-needs agenda of the US Africa and Special Operation Commands.
"First flight is a critical step in maturing the MQ-8C Fire Scout endurance upgrade before using the system operationally next year," said Capt. Patrick Smith, Fire Scout program manager for the Naval Air Systems Command, in a statement.
The C version, based on a Bell 407 airframe, follows on from the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which has been in limited -- but productive -- service with the Navy since 2010, and which will remain in service as its younger sibling gets phased in. Among other accomplishments, the MQ-8B has helped the Navy spot drug smugglers in a deployment from Florida and has carried out overland reconnaissance and surveillance flights in Afghanistan and in the vicinity of Somalia. To date, the B variant has amassed more than 10,000 flight hours, according to the Navy, and is on its seventh deployment aboard Navy frigates in support of antipiracy missions.
Northrop Grumman is under contract with the Navy to start producing eight of as many as 30 of the MQ-8C variant for deployment starting in 2014.
The Fire Scout uses on-board sensors to capture full-motion video that is relayed to ground commanders and others to help identify targets.
The MQ-8C will be larger than the 8B and capable of higher performance -- it'll be able to fly for up to 12 hours or carry up to 2,600 pounds, thanks to a larger airframe and additional fuel tanks, Northrop Grumman said.
"Operating the MQ-8B Fire Scout from Navy ships has proved extremely successful. During at-sea deployments, operators saw the need for a system that carried the same intelligence-gathering capabilities of the MQ-8B, but fly longer and carry additional payloads," George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman's vice president for medium range tactical systems, said in a statement.
It may not have the headline-grabbing qualities of the fighter jet-inspired X-47B, but the Fire Scout has certainly made itself useful in a hurry.