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Upgraded Fire Scout Prepares for First Test Flight

by Kris Osborn on October 7, 2013

MQ-8CThe U.S. Navy is preparing for the first test flight later this month of its upgraded MQ-8C Fire Scout Unmanned Aircraft System, a helicopter-like, vertical-take-off-and-landing maritime drone engineered to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, service officials said.

The MQ-8C Fire Scout, slated to fly out of Point Mugu, Naval Base Ventura County, Calif., is an upgraded version of the existing MQ-8B Fire Scout which has been in production since 2009. The MQ-8B Fire Scout is now on its seventh deployment and is currently aboard the USS Simpson, a Navy guided missile Frigate.

“With the MQ-8C, we took a commercial Bell 407 helicopter and modified it to include additional fuel capability to provide increased range and endurance – and then integrated the majority of the MQ-8B avionics and payloads onto that air frame. This method allows us to maintain all of the infrastructure we have already invested in,” Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager, multi-mission tactical unmanned air systems, NAVAIR, told Military​.com in an interview.

The upcoming flight test is intended to build upon the work designed to check the aircraft’s engine, electrical signals and control systems prior to flight, Smith explained.

“We went through a start-up procedure. The initial ground testing has finished up and we’re doing some analysis of all the data,” Smith said.

Overall, 30 Fire Scout MQ-8Bs have been acquired and the unmanned helicopter has deployed to the Mediterranean, Africa, Afghanistan and other key locations throughout the globe.

Commanders have issued a request for the rapid deployment 28 MQ-8C Fire Scout aircraft, Smith said.

The existing MQ-8B Fire Scout can travel 110 nautical miles and remain on station for at least 3 hours, Smith said.

“What we’re doing with the MQ-8C is effectively doubling the time on station and adding about 15– percent to its range capability. With that we’re also providing a lot of growth opportunity because we now have capability to put additional weight on the aircraft if people want to bring on additional sensors for the aircraft,” Smith explained.

Helping to overcomewhat many military planners call the “tyranny of distance” by extending the mission range of drones, is a large part of the rationale for the MQ-8C, Smith explained.

The Bell 407 helicopter airframe of the MQ-8C Fire Scout is being equipped with the same sensing capabilities on the initial Fire Scout UAS. The Fire Scout uses a BRITE Star II made by FLIR, an electro-optical/Infrared sensor which also provides laser designation and laser rangefinder technologies, Smith explained.

The Fire Scout also uses a transponder friend or foe system called Automatic Information System or AIF, Smith said.

Using a Ku-band data link called Tactical Common Data Link, the Fire Scout sensors are able to beam images in real time back to a control station on a ship and also stream video directly to hand-held devices.

“We don’t always have to send video back to a control station. We are able to send it directly to a hand held unit,” Smith added.

There are some modifications needed as engineers work to transition the sensors and electronics to the new, larger MQ-8C airframe.  However the sensors, TCDL data link, control stations and recovery system will be the same as the original Fire Scout.  Also, instead of traveling primarily on guided missile Frigates as the MQ-8B does, the new MQ-8C is slated for testing on a destroyer, Smith said.

In addition, the Navy plans to ensure that Fire Scout MQ-8C is configured with the mission equipment packages on board the Littoral Combat Ship. The existing Fire Scout is already set up to work as part of the LCS mission packages.  The Fire Scout’s control stations are installed on the first three LCS ships, Smith said.

Both the existing MQ-8B aircraft as well as the new Fire Scout will be engineered with radar capability, Smith said. Testing of a new MQ-8B radar system built by Telephonics is now underway, Smith said.  A key concept is to engineer the radar such that it can cue the EO/IR sensors on board the aircraft, he added.  The radar is a flat dish array with a 180-degree field of view.

Smith said the Navy plans to have the MQ-8C ready for deployment by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2014.

One analyst said using helicopter air frames like the 407 Bell can give a drone greater range and other advantages.

“The advantages are you can carry greater payloads and have greater versatility. Also, this will enable you to carry more weapons on the platform,” said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis, Teal Group, a Va.-based consultancy.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Bernard October 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm

K-max replacement?

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Seawolf 25 October 8, 2013 at 2:38 pm

No way. The K-Max is a cargo bird. This is a photo bird that could easily be replaced by a disposable drone weighing under 100 pounds.

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Bernard October 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm

I guess you missed the range and payload comments in the article.

“The advantages are you can carry greater payloads and have greater versatility. Also, this will enable you to carry more weapons on the platform,” said Philip

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FormerDirtDart October 8, 2013 at 3:58 pm

greater range and greater versatility compared to the MQ-8B.
The MQ-8B has a useful load (fuel and equipment) of about 1000lbs.
The K-MAX has a sling capacity of 6000lbs, and USMC operations of the unmanned K-MAX are averaging a 5000lb load.
The commercial Bell 407, of which the MQ-8C is based, has a useful load of around 2300lbs.

So no, the MQ-8C could not logically be considered as replacement for the K-MAX.

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Bernard October 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I swear I responded to this. I was wrong about the K-max, I thought it had less payload than this, however that doesn't mean that a "drone weighing under 100 pounds." is going to fulfill: “The advantages are you can carry greater payloads and have greater versatility. Also, this will enable you to carry more weapons on the platform.”

So it can't replace the K-Max, but I see why they want the upgrade.

tmb2 October 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Seawolf, did you even read what the Fire Scout is supposed to do? What aircraft can stay up for 3 hours and be even remotely that small?

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hibeam October 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Pick a landing area with high surrounding walls and see how well it can land in a box. Almost painful to think about how stupid that stunt was.

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guest October 10, 2013 at 8:04 am

yea, like you know more about it than the Seal and other forces!! Pure ridiculous statement by you.

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jamesb October 7, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Your tax dollars being throw away AGAIN?

This is almost as bad as the mechanical dog stunt…..

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Musson October 8, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Is it just me? Or, does anyone else think that if you scrap off the windshield paint you would find two pilots inside?

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UAVGeek October 9, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I donno who is downchecking me, but it's the truth. Has been since 1971.

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tmb2 October 9, 2013 at 6:31 pm

You might have better reception if you said something constructive and educational rather than "you morons."

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UAVGeek October 10, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Ok so I'll say it again, Tax dollars have no connection to government expenditure. Freaking out about debt is also a red herring.

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Dr. Horrible October 8, 2013 at 12:19 am

How is it only "helicopter-like?"

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Rest Pal October 8, 2013 at 11:31 am

here's hint: the person who wrote the article is an AMERICAN "reporter / journalist"

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philip October 10, 2013 at 8:06 am

DUh, see the rotor blades??? That might be a clue!

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FormerDirtDart October 8, 2013 at 12:27 am

Really wish they had used the A/MH-6X (MELB) as the base aircraft for this, instead of the Bell 407. Would have been a much smaller footprint on flightdecks and in hanger bays. May have had a cargo weight advantage too.

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Bernard October 8, 2013 at 9:28 am

According to Wikipedia there is an autonomous version of that too. I guess this is the new trend, to turn manned helicopters into UAV's.

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ohwilleke October 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Why not? The only difference is how the controls are operated and the software and hardware for one conversion ought to be pretty much like another. Eventually, they can remove the pilot seating redundancies, but those benefits are probably gravy compared to getting a drone helicopter that works into the field quickly.

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Bernard October 9, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I know, I think it's brilliant. I wish we had more cost saving thinking like this in the rest of our defense projects.

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Rage October 8, 2013 at 10:40 am

MH-6 is around a 3,000lb helicopter with 425shp, an H-58 is over 5,000lb with 625shp. No way is this going to work out to the MH-6 having a cargo weight advantage. The only advantage of the MH-6 would be less deck space, but that will not turn into carrying two MH-6 in place of one H-58 airframe in the limited space of a destroyer's helicopter hanger. It would matter if the objective was to fly from assault ships or CVNs, but it just isn't. If deck space matters, stick with the MQ-8B.

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FormerDirtDart October 8, 2013 at 3:42 pm

1. I did not state MH-6. The A/MH-6X (MELB) is an extensively upgraded a/c with a payload capacity of 1543Kg

2. The MQ-8C is based on commercial Bell 407, not an OH-58 airframe. The Bell 407 has a useful load of 1065Kg

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tiger October 9, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Not a Bell product….

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Belesari October 8, 2013 at 6:42 am

OK damn it who forgot to texture the helicopter!

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d. kellogg October 8, 2013 at 9:18 am

It is interesting to note that a completely new airframe is considered an "upgrade" just by using the next alphabet letter as a designator suffix.
MQ-8B, Schweizer 333.
MQ-8C, Bell 407 series.

Don't tell Lockheed Martin: they may find ways to re-open the F-22 line under the guise of some kinda upgraded F-35 D model, "now in twin-engined, expanded envelope form.
But it's still just an upgrade, not a new aircaft."

Hey, worked for the Super Hornet.
Marketting fail then was Northrop Grumman shoulda just called the
A-12 Avenger an A-6H "Super Intruder", mighta actually seen service.

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Rage October 8, 2013 at 10:45 am

They did that before, multiple times. Look at the Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III. Shares… nothing with the original. But in this case it makes some sense because the unique and complex part is the remote control system and its ground equipment and that did carry over.

Meanwhile USN once built new steel monitors in the 1890s and told Congress it was rebuilding Civil War era iron hulled vessels! Prior to that it used to massively rebuild wooden ships, USS Constitution has about 10% of her original wood in the hull ect… and did this on a routine basis. Congress would pay for more wood for the shipyards each year for 'repairs', but not approve building new vessels.

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Frank M. October 9, 2013 at 5:26 pm

The A-12 was actually a competative effort between Mcdonnell Douglas, and General Dynamics. McDonnell Douglas actually had one prototype built, while General Dynamics never put the first structural part on the tooling jig, but were demanding so much money that the Chief of Naval Operations cancelled the entire contract.

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FormerDirtDart October 9, 2013 at 6:38 pm

"The A-12 was actually a competative effort between Mcdonnell Douglas, and General Dynamics."
Incorrect. An industry team of McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics competed against an industry team of Northrop/Grumman/Vought

"McDonnell Douglas actually had one prototype built, while General Dynamics never put the first structural part on the tooling jig"
No prototype was ever built. The only thing completed was a mock-up of the McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics design

"Chief of Naval Operations cancelled the entire contract"
In reality, it was SecDef Dick Cheney who cancelled the project, after the Navy and the contractors failed to persuade him that the project should be retained.

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Steve October 8, 2013 at 9:22 am

The article describes it as "helicopter-like." It's not helicopter-like; it IS a helicopter!

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hibeam October 8, 2013 at 10:44 am

It's helicopter like in form fit and function. Other than that not so much. Probably should rename it a Whirlygig or something to prevent the confusion.

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blight_ October 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm

"The M-4 is an M-16-like…"

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DGR October 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Its a safe bet that since it has no pilot the author didnt want to call it a helicpoter. Much like an unmanned airplane is still an airplane, but nobody calls it an airplane, they call it an UAV/RPA/Drone.

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hibeam October 8, 2013 at 10:40 am

If you can program a helicopter to fly from point A to point B then we won't have to continually train human pilots. That will save money. Has anyone thought this through?

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John Scoggin October 8, 2013 at 2:12 pm

The UAV is aboard the USS Simpson — is Homer the pilot?

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Seawolf 25 October 10, 2013 at 10:13 am

Nearly 20 years ago some model airplane enthusiasts flew a model from Newfoundland to Ireland and it landed on the runway. It was done with a preprogrammed GPS. It certainly weighed under 100 pounds. I was referring to the photo portion of the mission.

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FormerDirtDart October 10, 2013 at 10:35 am

It was barely over ten years ago,

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