An autonomous helicopter designed to boost intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for ship crews at sea has completed a successful first flight from the deck of a littoral combat ship underway.
Earlier this month, the MQ-8C Fire Scout took off from the Independence-Class LCS Montgomery during a two-week series of tests off the coast of California. The flight came two years after the Fire Scout was first delivered to the Navy in December 2014 and marked a milestone in proving out the reliability and safety of the small drone.
A Fire Scout had previously conducted an at-sea flight off an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the Jason Dunham, in December 2015.
"Fire Scout’s successful testing aboard USS Montgomery and USS Dunham proves its capability to fly from multiple air capable ships," Navy Capt. Jeff Dodge Fire Scout program manager for Naval Air Systems Command, said in a statement released by Fire Scout manufacturer Northrop Grumman Corporation. "We plan to have the MQ-8C Fire Scout deployed aboard multiple ships in the near future, giving the fleet the persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting asset they need.”
The MQ-8C is the next-generation version of the MQ-8B Fire Scout, and a slightly larger airframe, based on the Bell 407. It offers increased endurance, range and capacity, a total of 8 hours on station, 150 nautical miles of range, and 700 pounds of payload capability, according to NAVAIR officials.
The platform is designed to work with the MH-60 Seahawk Romeo and Sierra variants, manned helicopters, and will build out the surface warfare package of the LCS. When development is complete, the LCS will operate with three separate, specialized packages tailored for surface warfare, mine countermeasures, and anti-submarine warfare.
According to Navy documents, littoral combat ships equipped for surface warfare are designed to carry 2 MQ-8B Fire Scout aircraft, while those deploying for one of the other mission sets will carry one. But as the MQ-8C enters its initial operational test and evaluation phase this fall, it sets the stage for future missions in which the next-generation autonomous aircraft is key to LCS operations.
“This testing is critical as it provides the flight envelope to safely execute MQ-8C flights from this class of ship,” Richard Gorman, Fire Scout lead assistant program manager for test and evaluation, said in a statement. “This test puts the MQ-8C one step closer to successfully deploying aboard the Navy’s fleet of littoral combat ships."