That's right, the Navy is moving ahead with its plan to replace it's relatively small MQ-8B Fire Scout drone helicopters with an unmanned version of the Bell 407 chopper, dubbed the MQ-8C Fire Scout (sometimes FireX, that will carry increased cargo and more than double the robot chopper's endurance.
"We've been asked to carry more packages on-board the aircraft, we've been asked for more endurance especially in high-hot environments, and so because of that we got an urgent requirement to upgrade the aircraft to give us greater endurance," said Rear Adm. William Shannon III, program executive officer for the Navy’s unmanned aircraft and strike weapons programs during the Navy League’s annual Sea, Air, Space Conference in National Harbor, Md. "As a result of that we are in the process of signing a contract with Northrop Grumman that would ostensibly swap out the airframe [for the Bell 407]; 95-percent of the software remains the same from [the original Fire Scout]; all the links, all the comms systems, all the avionics remain the same. Essentially, what we'll do is swap out the air vehicle, the airframe, with a Bell 407, and we'll go from about six-hours of endurance to about 14-hours of endurance. For those of you that are familiar with vertical lift and helicopters, that's pretty remarkable. About a six-to-seven hundred pound payload and 14 hours of endurance."
The MQ-8C will replace the smaller MQ-8B as a robot helicopter supporting special operations forces with everything from ISR overwatch and cargo resupply to close air support with rockets and missiles by 2015, according to Shannon.
Click here to read about the recent crashes involving the smaller Fire Scout.
The Bell 407 is basically an upgraded version of the civilian chopper that the Army's OH-58 Kiowa Warrior attack scout helo is based on. I've got to wonder, how long will it be before we see other, previously-manned weapon systems like say M1 Abrams tanks become unmanned and sent downrange?