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The Navy’s Newest Drone Chopper

by John Reed on April 17, 2012

That’s right, the Navy is moving ahead with its plan to replace it’s relatively small MQ-8B Fire Scout drone helicopters with an unmanned version of the Bell 407 chopper, dubbed the MQ-8C Fire Scout (sometimes FireX, that will carry increased cargo and more than double the robot chopper’s endurance.

“We’ve been asked to carry more packages on-board the aircraft, we’ve been asked for more endurance especially in high-hot environments, and so because of that we got an urgent requirement to upgrade the aircraft to give us greater endurance,” said Rear Adm. William Shannon III, program executive officer for the Navy’s unmanned aircraft and strike weapons programs during the Navy League’s annual Sea, Air, Space Conference in National Harbor, Md. “As a result of that we are in the process of signing a contract with Northrop Grumman that would ostensibly swap out the airframe [for the Bell 407]; 95-percent of the software remains the same from [the original Fire Scout]; all the links, all the comms systems, all the avionics remain the same. Essentially, what we’ll do is swap out the air vehicle, the airframe, with a Bell 407, and we’ll go from about six-hours of endurance to about 14-hours of endurance. For those of you that are familiar with vertical lift and helicopters, that’s pretty remarkable. About a six-to-seven hundred pound payload and 14 hours of endurance.”

The MQ-8C will replace the smaller MQ-8B as a robot helicopter supporting special operations forces with everything from ISR overwatch and cargo resupply to close air support with rockets and missiles by 2015, according to Shannon.

Click here to read about the recent crashes involving the smaller Fire Scout.

The Bell 407 is basically an upgraded version of the civilian chopper that the Army’s OH-58 Kiowa Warrior attack scout helo is based on. I’ve got to wonder, how long will it be before we see other, previously-manned weapon systems like say M1 Abrams tanks become unmanned and sent downrange?

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew April 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Did they just indefinitely ground the MQ-8B? Seems like the same software and comms could be a problem.

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Nick T. April 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm

My guess is that the software upgrade cost a good 10-150 mil, and make it twice the pain in the ars* to troubleshoot, 8 times more complex to task, and 4 times as likely to crash.

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TMB April 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Seems premature (maybe even reckless) to make what they're essentially calling a bigger Firescout before they figure out what was wrong with the original Firescout.

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majrod April 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm

True, when the drone refuses to land on a ship it definitely limits the drone's use then again it's not their money.

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Lance April 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm

There Firescout is in shambles with most malfunctioning. And yet they want to go with another UAV. Maybe the Navy could get there UAV skills built up before they go with a BIGGER and alot more expensive UAV which may crash into the sea if not maintained better than the current Firescout.

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tiger April 17, 2012 at 7:13 pm

2 incidents in about a year or 2 of ops is not a "Shambles."

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majrod April 17, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Darn facts!

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Lance April 17, 2012 at 9:01 pm

All I say is fix the current one before you buy whole new ones.

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SJE April 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm

There are several advantage of going with this UAV.
1. Use a well tested airframe and systems could be a LOT cheaper than the firescout
2. Using the Firescout electronic systems on this airframe may help isolate the problems with the Firescout. As it is, the firescout has too many things that are new that it can be harder to isolate the cause of the problems.
3. It would be interesting to see if they can start to RETROFIT old helos with UAV packages. That is, when a helo gets too old to be safe for pilots, can you gut it an get some more mileage as a UAV for a lot less. It does not have to be the latest and best electronics.

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FormerDirtDart April 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm

The MQ-8B Firescout is based off of the Schweizer 330SP/333. Which is a development of the Hughes 269, commonly know to decades of Army pilots as the first helicopter they ever flew, the TH-55 Osage.
The MQ-8B is based on a pretty mature system.

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Curt April 17, 2012 at 10:47 pm

True, but that doesn't fit his narrative.

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SJE April 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm

My concern is that the airframe has evolved too far from the original Schweizer design that you cannot assume that handling will be the same. Lets run the experiment with bigger choppers with the exact same airframe and see what we get.

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Kosme April 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Why not just use a manned Bell 407 chopper ??

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guess April 17, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Not fancy enough
Duh lol

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tiger April 17, 2012 at 7:16 pm

They cost money, benifits & and take away from payload.

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Dude April 17, 2012 at 8:29 pm

But also posses superior situational awareness, logical thought and adaptability to any situation. Also, they wont rise up and take over the word in the future either, lol.

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Curt April 17, 2012 at 10:50 pm

14hr endurance maybe? Paying for two helo pilots? Oh wait, 4 pilots due to crew rest! Reduced payload maybe?

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Kosme April 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Well … you would be giving 4 pilots a job …

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Andy April 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm

use MQ9 , folder wing add the hook and is a done deal quick and effective.

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S O April 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm

A navy helo without tyres?!?

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Curt April 19, 2012 at 6:40 pm

MQ-8B has skids as well.

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Belesari April 17, 2012 at 5:44 pm

"how long will it be before we see other, previously-manned weapon systems like say M1 Abrams tanks become unmanned and sent downrange?"

Never what would be the point. When a tank breaks down you need the crew to do maintanence. Its one of the reasons that crews are so big. The more hands to help the better.

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Ronaldo April 17, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Crew size in the M-1 has nothing to do with anything other than inefficiency. The Army can't wait until they get that fourth crew member ( the loader) outta there !

Check the latest T-90 for a small crew platform for 2010 and beyond.

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TMB April 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

We experimented with an autoloader. We didn't want it. We still don't want it.

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Riceball April 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Yup, the Army has known for a long time that a human loader is faster than any auto-loader out there and in combat seconds can easily make the difference in who gets the next shot off and that could very easily mean the difference between life and death.

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majrod April 17, 2012 at 8:34 pm

The bean counters want to get rid of the fourth man. Anyone who has been on or around a tank knows more is better. The ignorant forget things like continuous ops, maintenance, pulling security, casualties etc.

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Mastro April 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm

How long before the Navy decides they need UAV versions of the Chinook?

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TMB April 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Probably never since they don't use the Chinook.

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Sgt_Buffy April 18, 2012 at 7:50 am

Lol, nice one TMB. But even so, the dual-rotor system might just be easier for a computer to handle, I wonder. After all, one use for robotic anything is to take over the bulk transport jobs so that we don't have to risk people flying over hostile territory with just cargo or something, or even sending in a chopper to a heavy firefight to resupply troops without risking the pilots and crew.

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stephen russell April 17, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Needs NOTAR & or ducted tail rotor & use FireScout for Spec Ops & Gunship role, light Recon?
Still viable with bigger weapons payload?

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Brian Black April 18, 2012 at 5:39 am

The 14 hour endurance (NG say 15 hours) seems pretty remarkable for a helicopter.

Is this why drones keep crashing? No one bothers checking or inspecting anything anymore?

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Rohan April 18, 2012 at 8:42 am

This is really awesome !!!! I wanna meet the engineers who are working up for this !

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Old Ranger April 18, 2012 at 11:43 am

"I’ve got to wonder, how long will it be before we see other, previously-manned weapon systems like say M1 Abrams tanks become unmanned and sent downrange?"

BOLO!!!!

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Shail April 18, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Actually…
Wasn't too long ago that BAE toyed around with the idea of remote tanks,
with their development of the Black Knight.
http://www.military-today.com/apc/black_knight.ht

(The article is wrong on the point of the main gun: the Black Knight used a 30mm gun, not a 25.)
Preferrably, I'd have gone bigger (there's Bushmaster guns as large as 50mm).

"Robo-tanks" aren't really anywhere near ready for primetime battlefield use,
but Israel has been tinkering around with armed remote ground vehicles (4-wheeler ATVs) to patrol perimeter fencelines.
Using scout tank drones to overwatch perimeter areas isn't really all that far fetched.
Giving them enough of their own AI thought-processing, though, and all you Terminator fans might see your H/K crawlers…

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Erich April 18, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Someday certain select people will be able to control one of these right from home taking direction finding and firing orders from the at home commanders. But one will get shot down and wind up in China.

Wonder whatever happened to that drone that the Iranians got a hold of a couple of months ago?

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d. kellogg April 17, 2012 at 8:30 pm

@ Noha307:

"The ARH project went over-budget and used the same model as this proposal. Maybe we could bundle this project with the AAS program and save some $$$. "

Problem is, the Lakota airframe is no more built for maritime and shipboard operations than it currently is for combat ops.
It was principally procured and designed as a stay-at-home-and-don't-deploy aircraft that would be available for governor-declared emergencies stateside in the chance occurrence that all available (mostly National Guard) UH-60 Blackhawks and the various Bell 206-derived airframes in Army inventory are suddenly deployed overseas.

Making the Lakota fit for sea duty, manned or unmanned, will be no cheaper in development than the current MQ-8C offering.

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Noha307 April 18, 2012 at 9:12 am

You're right I didn't think of that. But what about the rest of the aircraft in the AAS competition, like the S-97? I assume you could say the same thing about them.

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