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Navy Flies First Flight of New Fire Scout

by Kris Osborn on November 1, 2013

The U.S. Navy conducted the first test flight of its upgraded MQ-8C Fire Scout Unmanned Aircraft System, an unmanned  helicopter engineered to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, service officials said.

The MQ-8C Fire Scout flew out of Point Mugu, Naval Base Ventura County, Calif. Navy officials released a statement detailing key aspects of the Oct. 31 flight.

“MQ-8C Fire Scout took off and flew for seven minutes in restricted airspace to validate the autonomous control systems. The second flight that took off at 2:39 p.m. was also flown in a pattern around the airfield, reaching an altitude of 500 feet,” the statement said.

The MQ-8C is al larger, 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, service officials said. The MQ-8C upgrade will provide longer endurance, range and greater payload capability than the MQ-8B, which is currently operating aboard USS Samuel B. Roberts.

The MQ-8C is a larger helicopter, has a range of 150 nautical miles and a payload capacity of more than 700 pounds, according to the Navy.

“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 earlier this month.

The flight test was 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.

The MQ-8Cs will conduct initial shipboard testing on Guided Missile Destroyers (DDG)-class ships but the program is looking into supporting Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) missions, the Navy statement said.

The Navy will continue to use the MQ-8B as it phases in the MQ-8C. Lessons learned from MQ-8B have been applied to MQ-8C variant, Smith said.

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.

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.

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