The U.S. Navy has taken a step closer to deploying a next-generation robotic military helicopter that takes off, lands and flies itself on missions.
The MQ-8C Fire Scout helicopter just took its first flight -- that would be flying by itself, without a pilot in the cockpit. The fully autonomous, four-blade, single-engine helicopter has a maximum speed of approximately 140 knots.
This new Fire Scout is designed to fly twice as long and carry three times the payload of the current MQ-8B variant.
What does it do?
Like the MQ-8B, this next generation Fire Scout can be used for a range of missions including communication, resupply and cargo delivery. With little ground oversight, the helicopter can deliver cargo to drop zones beyond the line of sight and return home.
Providing a robotic capability to deliver supplies day or night is important because it reduces the risk to forces. Without this sort of robo-copter, supplies would have to be transported by manned vehicles to remote locations. Each convoy puts forces at risk from the enemy and improvised explosive devices.
The new Fire Scout can carry around 2,600 pounds in its sling with a 1,000-pound maximum internal payload. All that weight translates into a trade off in flight time, of course. For example, if it is tasked to carry 600 pounds then it will have 11 hours of endurance.
It has an operational ceiling of 17,000 feet and advanced sensors for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. Commanders can use all of this capability to keep an eye on a specific area or a target.
With its upgraded engine and additional fuel tanks, the MQ-8C will be able to fly up to 14 hours.
They can also use the robotic helicopter to track and illuminate a target, providing accurate targeting data to strike platforms.
Fire Scout can take full motion video using on-board sensors, identify targets and distribute the information instantly to warfighters. It can also be deployed to provide battle damage assessment.
Handy for both land and maritime missions, not only can it take off and land on warships at sea, during ground missions it can also land itself in unprepared landing zones.
And it can do this by itself without a human in the loop.
No pilot is necessary for launch and recovery and its mission plan can be updated during flight.
And Fire Scout works as easily with the Navy’s Tactical Control Station as it does with the U.S. Army’s universal ground control station.
Within just a year, the team changed out the airframe, installed control systems and avionics, and then achieved the first flight of the tech.
A joint Navy and Northrop Grumman team flew the latest Fire Scout from the ground at the Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, California on Halloween.
Taking off at 12:05 p.m. PST, the MQ-8C Fire Scout took off and flew for 7 minutes in restricted airspace by itself. On a second flight the same day, it flew for 9 minutes in a pattern around the airfield and reached 500 feet in altitude.
In order to put advances in the hands of warfighters faster, this variant leverages available technology. For example, it is based on the popular commercial Bell 407 helicopter frame that already has over 3 million flight hours logged.
The frame is then combined with Northrop Grumman's unmanned systems tech to allow the helicopter to fly without a pilot in the cockpit. This tech has more than 7,800 flight hours including more than 5,900 flown operationally from ships and on land.
The MQ-8C Fire Scout team includes Bell Helicopter, Rolls-Royce, Summit Aviation, Cubic Corporation, General Electric Aviation, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Honeywell.
Currently, the MQ-8B Fire Scout is on its seventh at-sea deployment on board Navy frigates. It has been deployed on a range of missions from airborne surveillance in Afghanistan since early 2011 through to anti-piracy.
This next generation Fire Scout is due to deploy operationally next year.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.