The 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.