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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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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

John Deere November 1, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Surely someone can get angry about this? Or, maybe start a random argument?

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Kuzinov November 1, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I can't believe that the new one is grey. All that money given to the military-industrial complex and it's the same shade of grey as a hundred years ago. How can we ever hope to defeat China when Obama tries to hand our country over to them when we're stuck using the same navy colors for a hundred years?

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PolicyWonk November 1, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Obama hand our country over the China? Ha!

You should read Patrick Buchanan's many editorials from 2002-2008 that decried the G W Bush administration's policy allowing huge amounts of the strategic manufacturing base, tens of thousands of dual use technologies, the hard-won manufacturing techniques, and over 8 million jobs (plus the tax base) move to China.

They are now using those same technologies to fuel their massive military build up, and the US national intelligence estimates fundamentally announced that the ChiComs gained more technology for free (well, in return for short-term profits for that administrations supporters companies) from the Bush Administration is 8 years, than the Soviets were able to steal in 60 years of cold war.

Buchanan not only saw it as severely damaging to US workers (8.2 million lost their jobs), but to the US tax base (along with more folks on welfare and food stamps), while fueling a resurgent China that might become far more belligerent in the process.

Buchanan, unfortunately for all of us, was completely on target.

Unfortunately.

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Roger Why November 1, 2013 at 5:41 pm

The nations of the World think they're playing monopoly with China, while China is playing risk.

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annoyed November 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I think he was being sarcastic

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Kuzinov November 1, 2013 at 7:54 pm

My job is done here. ;p

Stephen N Russell November 1, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Why not use NOTAR in vehicle alone??
Or ducted fan rotor to cut costs & maint time

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Jacob November 2, 2013 at 3:31 am

If it's a completely different airframe, should it still have the MQ-9 designation?

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annoyed November 2, 2013 at 10:03 am

No, and it doesn't have an MQ-9 designation.

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majr0d November 2, 2013 at 1:00 pm

So a drone Kiowa…

Besides sending the drone on high risk or one way missions what's the advantage?

What are the specific weight advantages to optimizing the helo for remote ops vs. putting a pilot in the A/C?

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FormerDirtDart November 2, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Actually, the first question should be: Do drone operators have similar restrictions on "flight hours" that limit aviators of traditionally piloted aircraft?
And then: If not, does this translate into an operational availability advantage for drone/remote operated aircraft over traditionally piloted aircraft?

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majr0d November 3, 2013 at 12:07 am

No, I'd like to know what the hardware weighs.

I understand the versatility a pilot gives an aircraft. I understand the advantages to a remote control aircraft. What I don't know is for this specific airframe is how much weight is saved by not putting a pilot in it.

I'm also curious what had to be done and the cost to make this aircraft "marine worthy" because some have told me it's very expensive and difficult…

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blight_ November 3, 2013 at 12:58 am

Could easily be heavier than the pilot+mechanical/electronic controls/instrumentation. The volume the pilot+controls/instrumentation occupies requires some empty space for the pilot to see what's ahead of him and to not die of claustrophobia. The upper bounds for cramming electronics in is higher in a teleoperated aircraft. I'm wondering if they painted over the windows because the interior is indeed chock-full of electronics.

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FormerDirtDart November 3, 2013 at 1:42 am
Lance November 2, 2013 at 11:09 pm

So we made a pilotless OH-58 for the navy…. SO?????

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FiremanCJ November 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I'm just wondering with these drones the navy is putting into service, is the SH-60 going to be the next drone size to come in service and if it is are they going to do away with the pilot flying them.

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AES November 3, 2013 at 8:57 pm

The Fire Scouts (MQ-8B and C) are not remotely piloted, they fly pre-planned mission routes that can be updated by the operator by uploading new way points via the data link. They also take-off and land autonomously after getting the command from the operator, no hand flying for take-offs and landings. The joy stick on the control console is for the EO/IR ball, not the aircraft, just a keyboard for the pilot. As the article said, the MQ-8C airframe provides a 15% increase in range, 100% increase in time-on-station and more payload capacity, a pretty significant increase in capability.

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Mystick November 6, 2013 at 8:03 am

An R/C Jet Ranger. Nice.

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majr0d November 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Thanks, that pic is helpful but what does it weigh?

I'm of the mind that if it doesn't really cut a huge amount of weight how much more capability do you really get (e.g. fuel, sensors, weapons)?

Maybe this just an incremental step to develop tactics/doctrine while simultaneously increasing payload/range? Fine, I can understand that. Just seems a bit of a step back by selecting an airframe not purpose built for naval ops (unless as I suspect it's not as major an issue that some have made it seem).

This may be an intermediate step because the B model didn't have the range/payload before designing a purpose built UAV.

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