Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout

The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter that is used by the United States Armed Forces for reconnaissance missions, situational awareness, and targeting assistance for ground, air, and sea bound soldiers. There are four variants of this UAV, two of which were derived from Schweizer helicopters.

The first MQ-8 version, known as the RQ-8A, was used after the Navy retired their RQ-2 Pioneers. The Navy wanted an updated UAV with specific guidelines, including vertical takeoff & landing (VTOL) capabilities, a vehicle that could fly at twenty thousand feet for up to three hours, and the ability to carry up to two hundred pounds, among other guidelines. The Navy created a competition to find a UAV fitting their needs, calling it VTOL-UAV or VTUAV. They settled on three finalists, including a Bell version and a collaboration between Teledyne Ryan and Schweizer Aircraft, whose design was chosen as the winner in 2000. The prototype, which was used to demonstrate the design to the Navy, was based off a Schweizer helicopter that could carry three passengers. It featured a new fuel system, UAV sensors and electronics, and a Rolls-Royce 250-C20 turbine engine that ran off JP-8 and JP-5 jet fuel. This version of the Fire Scout was to be equipped with a number of cameras and sensors, which could be controlled from a similar device used for the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV.

Despite the big plans for the RQ-8A, the Navy decided that the UAV would not be what they were looking for, so they cut the funding for the project in 2001. Northrop Grumman continued to develop the UAV, however, presenting upgrades to anyone interested in it. The U.S. Army took interest in the upgraded version and ordered seven machines that were delivered in 2003 and renamed MQ-8B. Some of the upgrades included a four-blade main rotor, which reduces noise during takeoff and boosts takeoff weight and total carrying capacity. This version can carry Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, hellfire missiles, and pods holding Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems, among other amunitions. The Army chose to end its usage of the MQ-8B in 2010, opting for the RQ-7 Shadow UAV instead.

Because of the Army’s interest in the Fire Scout, the Navy ordered eight specialized versions of the MQ-8B, known as the Sea Scout, which is currently being updated with radar, weapons, and other equipment into a more efficient vehicle. Nine other Sea Scouts were ordered in 2012, with requests for RDR-1700 maritime-surveillance radars to be placed on each UAV. It is thought that these versions should be completed by the end of 2013.

Northrop announced its design for an autonomous Bell 407 helicopter in 2010, hoping to create a cargo version of the Fire Scout, known as the Fire-X. This helicopter successfully completed its first flight in December of 2010, landing at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. In 2012, the Navy contracted Northrop to build a new design of the MQ-8C, which was completed and delivered in 2013. It is made with the same payload, avionic, software systems, and ship ancillary equipment as the MQ-8B, although its airframe is upgraded to be able to hold up to three times the weight of the older version. It is thought that this UAV will be able to fly in October of 2013 and it will be upgraded with the APKWS II in 2014, the same year that testing at sea should occur.

The RQ-8A Fire Scout made its first autonomous landing in 2006, marking the first time that a helicopter landed on a moving ship without human control. Since then, it has performed in a number of missions for U.S. military branches. An MQ-8B was placed on the McInerney in 2009 and in 2010, it found two vessels engaged in drug smuggling in the Eastern Pacific. Three Fire Scouts were deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 for a mission that involved intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, also known as an ISR mission, which was extended through 2012. The Navy stopped using the Fire Scouts for a brief period in 2012 due to malfunctions, but resumed operations after fixing the known problems.

Image Caption: MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical Unmanned Air System (VUAS) flies with the BRITE Star II electro-optical/infrared payload using a Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) at Webster Field, Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. Credit: Jrfreeland/Wikipedia