The Navy is poised to begin operational testing of its new MQ-8C Fire Scout UAS, a vertical take-off-and landing drone engineered for maritime missions and slated to deploy aboard the services’ Littoral Combat Ship by 2018, service officials said.
The MQ-8C is a larger, upgraded version of the currently existing MQ-8B Fire Scout, a vertical take-off- and landing unmanned system which deployed to the Pacific theater aboard the USS Fort Worth, or LCS 3, this past November.
The upgraded MQ-8C launched on its first test flight in the Fall of 2013. The Navy has been conducting initial testing with two test MQ-8C aircraft as a step toward eventually acquiring up to 40 MQ-8Cs, said Capt. Jeff Dodge, program manager, Multi-mission Technical Unmanned Air System Office.
Seventeen of the new drones are already on order, he added.
“The MQ-8C has shown greater range and endurance than we had originally estimated,” Dodge said in an interview with Military.com.
The MQ-8C air vehicle upgrade will provide longer endurance, range and greater payload capability than the existing smaller MQ-8B. The MQ-8B Fire Scout can stay up on a mission for up to five hours, whereas the larger MQ-8C can achieve more than twice that range, Dodge explained.
The MQ-8C is a larger air vehicle with a range of 150 nautical miles and a payload capacity of more than 700 pounds, a Navy statement said.
The MQ-8C is a converted commercial Bell 407 helicopter modified to include additional fuel capability for increased range and endurance. Most of the avionics from the smaller MQ-8B Fire Scout have been integrated into the airframe, Navy officials said.
The Bell 407 helicopter airframe of the MQ-8C Fire Scout is being equipped with some of 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, service officials said.
However, there are some modifications needed as engineers work to transition the sensors and electronics to the new, larger MQ-8C airframe. The sensors, data link, control stations and recovery system will be the same as the original Fire Scout.
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, which deployed on the USS Forth Worth, is already set up to work as part of the LCS mission packages. In fact, the Fire Scout’s control stations are installed on the first three LCS ships.
Both the existing MQ-8B aircraft as well as the new Fire Scout are engineered with radar capability. The MQ-8B tested a new radar system last year built by Telephonics is now underway. A key concept is to engineer the radar such that it can cue the EO/IR sensors on board the aircraft, Navy officials said. The radar is a flat dish array with a 180-degree field of view.
While on deployment aboard the Fort Worth in the Pacific theater, operators trained with and operated the MQ-8B aircraft in order to better integrate the platform with the LCS surface warfare mission package, a collection of technologies assembled to transition on and off the ship as needed.
The surface warfare package, or SUW, includes MH-60 helicopters, two 30mm guns and 11-meter RIBs, or rigid hull inflatable boats, for fast-attack, rescue or maneuver operations. Future SUW increments will also include the Fire Scout UAS for additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology.
The existing electro-optical and infrared cameras on the Fire Scout have a range of six-to-ten miles, whereas a new maritime search radar aboard the MQ-8C will be able to find targets at ranges out to 80 nautical miles.
“The maritime radar is particularly looking for both small and large vessels over water,” Dodge said.
The 31-foot long Fire Scout can fly at airspeeds up to 110 knots and reach altitudes of 20,000 feet; the aircraft weighs 3,150 pounds at its maximum take-off weight and is powered by one Rolls-Royce heavy fuel turboshaft engine, Navy officials said.
The Fire Scout also uses Automatic Identification System, or AIS, technology to help locate and identify ships, Dodge said.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com