Just two weeks after the U.S. Navy announced the temporary suspension of flight operations for its MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, the service has tapped Northrop Grumman to upgrade the systems for greater endurance, range and payload capacity.
Along with its Navy service, a variant of the Fire Scout system was also selected as the “Class IV” unmanned aircraft system within the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, although that element was terminated in January 2010 as the capstone FCS program was evolving toward its own eventual demise.
“Fire Scout has provided significant support to ground commanders by enhanced situational awareness to joint forces closely engaged against enemy combatants.”
However, the system has performed extremely well in Navy service since 2006, with a recent description highlighting “over 5,000 flight hours with more than 3,000 flight hours tallied during operational deployments. Fire Scout has played a significant role in multiple operations, including three counter-piracy actions; a search-and-seizure operation; support of successful transits of the Strait of Hormuz; completion of a special operations proof of concept; and use as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset for Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. In Afghanistan alone, Fire Scout has provided significant support to ground commanders by enhanced situational awareness to joint forces closely engaged against enemy combatants.”
An April 10, 2012 release from Naval Air Systems Command confirmed a temporary suspension of Fire Scout flight operations for the 14 air vehicles in inventory following “two unrelated operational mishaps with the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter.”
“There were no injuries to personnel and no damage to other aircraft,” the announcement noted. The first incident occurred on March 30, when an MQ-8B Fire Scout operating off USS Simpson (FFG 56) “was ditched at sea upon returning from a maritime surveillance mission in support of Africa Partnership Station.”
“The air vehicle was unable to achieve UAS Common Automated Recovery System (UCARS) lock on, a requirement for landing aboard a ship at sea,” it stated. “After multiple approaches and exhaustive troubleshooting by operators, the aircraft was positioned a safe distance from Simpson and the flight was terminated. Subsequently, Simpson crew performed a nighttime recovery of the aircraft.”
According to the announcement, “The second incident occurred April 6 when an MQ-8B operating in northern Afghanistan crashed while conducting a routine surveillance mission in support of Regional Command North. The cause of the crash is unknown at this time.”
Just two weeks after that announcement, Northrop Grumman announced its receipt of a Navy contract “to produce the next-generation Fire Scout unmanned helicopter using the Bell 407 airframe.”
As noted in a Department of Defense contract award announcement of the prior day, the company will produce a total of eight Fire Scouts within an amount not to exceed $262 million. With the Navy planning to purchase a total of 28 aircraft under a rapid development effort.
The Fire Scout endurance upgrade has been designated as the MQ-8C, and has been proven through a company-funded “Fire-X” medium-range vertical unmanned aerial system (VUAS) demonstration effort that has been conducted between Northrop Grumman and Bell Helicopter.
“Through our company-funded Fire-X demonstration effort we proved that using the mature unmanned systems architecture developed for the MQ-8B Fire Scout paired with the Bell 407 helicopter would provide greater capability efficiently and affordably.”
By integrating Fire Scout’s proven autonomous systems with the Bell 407 helicopter, an FAA-certified helicopter that’s been in commercial service worldwide since 1996, the team was able to achieve first autonomous flight milestone on Dec. 10, 2010, just 11 months after development began.
The resulting Fire-X design was credited with a useful load of more than 3,000 pounds of fuel, payloads and/or cargo, with a flight duration envelope able to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions up to 16 hours long, or cargo missions of 2,500 pounds out to a range of 110 nautical miles.
“Through our company-funded Fire-X demonstration effort we proved that using the mature unmanned systems architecture developed for the MQ-8B Fire Scout paired with the Bell 407 helicopter would provide greater capability efficiently and affordably,” said Duke Dufresne, vice president and general manager for unmanned systems. “By using systems that have many years of development already invested in them we can meet the Navy’s needs quickly.”
Northrop Grumman will serve as the prime contractor for the MQ-8C program. Major suppliers for the new variant include Bell Helicopter and Rolls-Royce.
Final assembly of the new Fire Scout variant will be completed at Northrop Grumman’s Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss.