Newer, Bigger Fire Scout Unmanned Helicopter Makes Inaugural Flight

By Valerie Insinna
 Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8C Fire Scout — an autonomous, full-scale unmanned Bell 407 helicopter — hit a snag during its first flight at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, Calif., on Oct. 31.
After taking off and hovering, the aircraft was scheduled to land and remain with its engines at idle power while the Navy and Northrop Grumman reviewed initial flight data. But upon landing, the weight-on skid switches, which are supposed to go off simultaneously, had an eight-second delay, said Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s MQ-8C program manager.
Engineers shut down the engines, adjusted the switches and continued on with flight testing. “In a logbook, what would have read as one flight — because we had the engine shutdown — got logged as two," he said.
The problem was not serious, said Northrop Grumman’s project manager George Vardoulakis. “It was a minor adjustment. It was essentially just changing the air gap between the metal plate and the plunger.”
Those two flights only lasted seven and nine minutes, respectively, but Northrop and Navy officials said the aircraft will ultimately be able to fly up to 12 hours and carry up to 2,600 pounds, twice as long and three times the payload capability of its predecessor, the MQ-8B. The MQ-8C reached an altitude of 500 feet during its second flight.
The Navy plans on buying 28 MQ-8C aircraft to fulfill urgent needs conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility, and could procure even more for the littoral combat ship, Smith said.
AFRICOM commanders "have been looking for every opportunity to provide additional ISR capability in various areas. So any opportunity we've got to support anti-piracy, smuggling, tracking of high value targets, anything like that, there's an urgent need to be able to provide that kind of capability to support additional information flow,” he said.
The MQ-8C will be able to fly 150 nautical miles while carrying a 300 pound payload, collect ISR for eight hours, and then fly back to the ship, Smith said.
Initial testing will take place onboard guided missile destroyers in 2014, while initial operating capability for deployment on the littoral combat ship is scheduled for 2016, he said.
Going forward, the MQ-8C will begin envelope validation flights next week, where engineers will make sure flight control algorithms are consistent with the expected aircraft performance, Smith said. Payload integration flights could begin as early as December.
After that, the aircraft will undergo dynamic interface testing that will eventually conclude with a test period aboard a DDG-class destroyer, he said.
Along with a new airframe, the MQ-8C is equipped with larger fuel tanks and an upgraded engine. At around $11.5 million per aircraft, the C-variants cost up to $2 million more than the older aircraft, Smith said.  
Its predecessor, the MQ-8B, which is based on the Schweizer 333 helicopter, has already logged more than 10,000 flight hours. It’s currently flown off Navy frigates to collect ISR for antipiracy operations, and has also been used in Afghanistan to give Navy commanders a bird’s eye view of what’s happening on the ground.
Smith said the MQ-8B’s will begin tests aboard LCS 3 USS Fort Worth next week, with aircraft deploying as early as 2015. The Navy has already trained its first aviation detachment that has a mix of MQ-8Bs and manned MH-60 Seahawks. It will undergo an assessment mid-2014 to see how it performs aboard an LCS.
There are no further plans for MQ-8B procurement, although two of the aircraft under contract have not been delivered, he said. 

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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