The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman for use by the United States Armed Forces. The Fire Scout is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces. The initial RQ-8A version was based on the Schweizer 330, while the enhanced MQ-8B was derived from the Schweizer 333.
Design and development
As the US Navy was withdrawing its RQ-2 Pioneers from service, it began to seek a second generation UAV. The Navy requirement specified a vertical takeoff & landing (VTOL) aircraft, with a payload capacity of 90 kilograms (200 pounds), a range of 125 miles (200 km), an endurance on station of three hours at an altitude of 20,000 ft (6 km), and the ability to land on a ship in a 46 km/h (29 mph) wind. The UAV was to fly 190 hours between maintenance.
There were three finalists in the competition, which was designated “VTOL-UAV” or “VTUAV”. Bell, Sikorsky, and a collaboration of Teledyne Ryan and Schweizer Aircraft submitted designs. The Ryan-Schweizer UAV was selected as the winner in the spring of 2000. The RQ-8A Fire Scout, as it was named, was a derivative of the Schweizer three-passenger, turbine powered 330SP helicopter, with a new fuselage, new fuel system, and UAV electronics and sensors.
The initial prototype of the Fire Scout was piloted in initial tests, flying autonomously for the first time in January 2000. The Rolls-Royce 250-C20 turbine engine ran on JP-8 and JP-5 jet fuel (the latter of which has a lower flashpoint and is considered safe for shipboard storage and use).
The Fire Scout was to be fitted with a sensor ball turret that carries electro-optic and infrared cameras, and a laser range finder. It was to be controlled over a data link derived from the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV, operating over a line of sight to a distance of 172 miles (280 km). The control system was to be fitted onto a ship, or could be carried on a Humvee light vehicle for US Marine service.
Although progress on the project had been regarded as satisfactory, the Navy decided the Fire Scout didn’t meet their needs after all, and cut funding for production in December 2001. However, the development program continued, and Northrop Grumman pitched a range of improved configurations to anyone who was interested. As it turned out, the U.S. Army was very interested, awarding a contract for seven improved RQ-8B evaluation machines in late 2003. In 2006, it was redesignated MQ-8B.
The MQ-8B features a four-blade main rotor, in contrast to the larger-diameter three-blade rotor of the RQ-8A, to reduce noise and improve lift capacity and performance. The four-blade rotor had already been evaluated on Fire Scout prototypes. They boost gross takeoff weight by 500 pounds to 3,150 pounds (by 225 kg to 1,430 kg), with payloads of up to 700 pounds (320 kg) for short-range missions.
The MQ-8B is fitted with stub wings which serve both an aerodynamic purpose as well as an armament carriage location. Weapons to be carried include Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and in particular pods carrying the “Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS)”, a laser-guided 70 millimeter (2.75 inch) folding-fin rocket, which the Army saw as ideal for the modern battlefield. The Army was also interested in using the Fire Scout to carry up to 200 pounds (90 kg) of emergency supplies to troops in the field.
The MQ-8B is being modified to permit rapid swap out of payload configurations. The current sensor configuration of a day/night turret with a laser target designator will remain an option. Alternate sensor payloads in consideration include a TSAR with Moving Target Indicator (MTI) capability, a multispectral sensor, a SIGINT module, the Target Acquisition Minefield Detection System (ASTAMIDS), and the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL). The Army wanted the Fire Scout to operate as an element of an integrated ground sensor network as well.
Production of the flight test airframes was initiated in April 2006 at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems production plant in Moss Point, Mississippi. The Navy approved low-rate initial production. The first flight of the MQ-8B took place on 18 December 2006 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
The Army interest revived Navy interest in the program, with the Navy ordering eight Sea Scout MQ-8B derivatives for evaluation. In January 2010, the Army terminated its involvement with the Fire Scout, contending that the RQ-7 Shadow UAV could meet the Army’s needs.
The MQ-8B complements the manned aviation detachments onboard Air Capable ships and is deployed along with either an SH-60B HSL/HSM detachment or a MH-60S HSC detachment. With the planned addition of RADAR, AIS, and weapons, the MQ-8B will provide many of the capabilities currently provided by the SH-60B. It will give the ship and embarked air detachment greater flexibility in meeting mission demands, and will free manned aircraft for those missions.
Northrop Grumman has started work outfitting the MQ-8B with a weapons system. The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System laser-guided 70 mm rocket. The corporation will develop and deliver the equipment needed to control the weapons system under a $17 million contract awarded to the company 23 September 2011 by Naval Air Systems Command. Final delivery of an operational system is expected by March 2013.
On 30 December 2012, the Navy issued an urgent order to install RDR-1700 maritime-surveillance radars on nine MQ-8B Fire Scouts. Installation should be completed by the end of 2013. The system consists of the radar, modified MQ-8B radome, and interfaces into the helicopter UAV and its control station. The radar weighs 71 lb and will be mounted underneath the helicopter to give 360-degree coverage. It is an X-band synthetic aperture radar that can show objects in a detailed way. Detailed range is out to 25 km (16 mi), with a max range of 80 km (50 mi). The RDR-1700 can see through clouds and sandstorms and can be used for terrain mapping or for weather detection. It can track 20 air or surface targets and can use a target-marker to determine the range, bearing, and velocity of a target. MQ-8B UAVs with the radar could be useful in the Persian Gulf to track small Iranian speed boats, or the Gulf of Aden to locate Somali pirates.
On 3 May 2010, Northrop announced plans to fly a Bell 407 helicopter modified with autonomous controls from the MQ-8B. Named Fire-X, it was designed to demonstrate an unmanned cargo resupply capability to the US Navy.
The unmanned Fire-X completed its first flight at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona on 20 December 2010.
On 23 April 2012, Northrop received a $262.3 million contract from the Navy to develop and build the newly designated MQ-8C version of the Fire Scout. The contract calls for Northrop to build and test two developmental aircraft over the next 26 months. The company is also contracted to build six low-rate production aircraft at the same time. The Navy wants 28 MQ-8Cs for naval special operations forces.
The MQ-8C weighs 2.7 tons, has a 1,000 lb payload, and has an endurance of up to 24 hours. It can be armed with AGM-175 Griffin missiles and APKWS II guided 70 mm rockets that the MQ-8B can carry, as well as heavier AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The MQ-8C is expected to enter service in 2014. In March 2013, the Navy incorperated the Rolls-Royce 250-C47E into the MQ-8C. The new engine has a 5% increase in “hot and high” power, 2% reduced fuel consumption, 8% increase in rated takeoff power to 700 shaft horsepower, and better reliability.
In January 2006, an RQ-8A Fire Scout landed aboard the U.S. Navy warship USS Nashville while it was steaming off the coast of Maryland near the Patuxent River. This marked the first time an unmanned helicopter has landed autonomously aboard a moving U.S. Navy ship without a pilot controlling the aircraft.
The USS Nashville, which is an amphibious transport ship, was maneuvering as fast as 17 mph (27 km/h) in the tests.
The flight test program is underway. Production aircraft will eventually be deployed on the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships. In February 2008, the U.S. Navy announced that they would integrate the MQ-8B Fire Scout VTUAV onto another air-capable ship before it reaches the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).
The Fire Scout is a key enabler for LCS and significantly contributes to its designated warfare mission areas of anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare and mine warfare. The modular nature of the ship to accomplish the designated mission is complemented by the Fire Scout and its modular mission payload capability. However, due to changes in the LCS development schedule, the Navy conducted the Fire Scout Operational Evaluation (OpEval) aboard USS McInerney (FFG-8). This will provide the fleet with unmanned aerial system support as soon as possible. The Fire Scout first embarked aboard the guided-missile frigate USS McInerney, an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, while in port for operational fit checks and ship integration testing on December 10, 2008. The Fire Scout was slated to deploy aboard USS McInerney during its next counter-narcotics trafficking deployment later in 2009.
According to the current schedule, the Navy conducted Technical Evaluation on the Fire Scout on the FFG-8 in the fall 2008 and Operational Evaluation in the summer 2009. The Fire Scout was to reach Initial Operating Capability soon after the evaluation. The Navy will continue to support LCS Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) efforts in fiscal year 2011.
Flight tests took place 4–8 May 2009 off the coast of Mayport, Fla. The U.S. Navy Fire Scout completed test flights in areas of shipboard deck motion and wind envelope expansion and landings including the use of the grid and harpoon system. During the five days of testing, the ship/aircraft team compiled 19 flight hours during 12 flights, which included 54 landings, 37 of which were into the NATO standard grid.
In September 2009, the Navy announced the first deployment of the MQ-8B aboard McInerney.
On 3 April 2010, an MQ-8 from McInerney detected a “go-fast” open speedboat and a support vessel engaged in smuggling cocaine in the Eastern Pacific, allowing the ship to confiscate 60 kg of cocaine and detain a number of suspects. On 2 August 2010 an MQ-8 became unresponsive to commands during testing and entered restricted airspace around Washington, D.C.
In May 2011, three MQ-8s were deployed to northern Afghanistan for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), a mission which has been extended another year.
On 21 June 2011, a MQ-8 operating from USS Halyburton (FFG-40) as part of Operation Unified Protector was shot down over Libya during a surveillance and reconnaissance mission. Aboard the Halyburton, the Fire Scouts were flown and maintained by the ship’s SH-60 detachment, HSL-42.
The U.S. Navy briefly grounded the MQ-8B Fire Scout after two of the aircraft crashed overseas within a week. In the first incident, the Navy said a Fire Scout crashed off the coast of Africa on 30 March after it was unable to land on the US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Simpson (FFG-56) at the end of a surveillance mission. On 6 April 2012, another Fire Scout crashed in Afghanistan. An investigation into the crash in Afghanistan determined the cause was a faulty navigation system. The cause of the crash near the USS Simpson (FFG-56) remains less clear, so the result was tougher maintenance procedures put in place to prevent a faulty copter from going on-mission. The Fire Scout was back flying over Afghanistan by May, and returned to sea-based ISR “anti-piracy” operations by August.
The U.S. Navy has continued to deploy the MQ-8B to the African AOR with deployments in USS Klakring (FFG 42) and USS Robert G. Bradley (FFG 49). In each of the deployments the UAV has exceeded 500 flight hours, while providing critical ISR coverage for AFRICOM and 6th Fleet.
Version has an 8-hour endurance with a 170 lb payload.
Improved variant using avionics from the MQ-8B into the larger Bell 407 airframe. It has a 14 hr endurance with 600-700 lb in payload.
United States Navy – 27 in service,168 planned
Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce 250, 313 kW (420 hp)
|Max. Takeoff Weight|
|MQ-8 Fire Scout||7.3||8.4||2.9||213||203.7||8||6100||272|
|USA||Northrop Grumman||Los Angeles, California||http://www.northropgrumman.com|