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The Pentagon has approved the requirement for an “endurance upgrade” to the U.S. Navy’s Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system, with a larger air vehicle to provide increased payload and range to support special operations forces.
After also evaluating the Boeing A160T Hummingbird and Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max unmanned helicopters, the program office has recommended using the Bell 407 airframe, Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s Fire Scout program manager, said Aug. 17 at the AUVSI International show in Washington.
The program office’s recommendation has yet to be endorsed by Navy leadership, but Northrop and Bell are already jointly developing an unmanned version of the civil Bell 407 light turbine helicopter, called the Fire-X, which first flew in December.
“The MQ-8C endurance upgrade package started as a joint urgent operational need statement from Special Operations Command. The requirement was validated [on Aug. 16] by the office of the secretary of defense,” Smith says.
“Our recommendation is to go with the 407 airframe, based on the time frame limitations,” he says. The requirement is to develop the larger MQ-8C within 24 months, for deployment in 2014, with plans to acquire 28 air vehicles over three years.
Plans to arm the basic MQ-8B Fire Scout, which is based on a Schweizer 333 helicopter, also have been approved. The rapid deployment capability program calls for fielding within 18 months, possibly on the Littoral Combat Ship, Smith says.
The Navy has selected a laser-guided 70 mm rocket, BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), as the initial weapon because it has existing safety approval for deployment on ships.
“Northrop Grumman will conduct a demonstration of Raytheon’s Griffin later this month, and we would like to become weapon-agnostic,” he says. Griffin is a 35-lb. tube-launched laser-guided mini-missile.
The Navy, meanwhile, has confirmed that an MQ-8B that went down over Libya on June 21 while operating from the USS Halyburton was “lost to enemy fire.” Communications and radar contact was lost while the aircraft was flying below cloud cover in an area where other allied aircraft had already come under heavy anti-aircraft fire.
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On Dec. 10, the Northrop Grumman/Bell Helicopter Fire-X demonstrator achieved first flight in Yuma, Arizona, just days after arriving there for flight testing, according to officials on the program team.
This is a major step toward the two teammates entering the evolving and potentially lucrative market of unmanned rotorcraft for cargo carriage or intelligence collection. Northrop approached Bell and crafted the jointly funded project in early 2010 with the goal of flying within a year.
Cathy Ferrie, director of Bell’s Xworx rapid prototyping division, says “From initial concept to flying a prototype was extremely quick.”
The aircraft, which also retains the ability to be piloted, was ferried to Yuma two weeks ago from Bell’s Xworx facility in Arlington, Texas, says Charles Shepard, director of technology business development for the rapid prototyping unit.
The Fire-X demonstrator, built on the commercial Bell 407 platform, was modified at Xworx with computers, actuators and other systems from prime contractor Northrop’s MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. “Our philosophy was to be minimally invasive,” says Bob Davis, Northrop’s director of business development for air and land advanced concepts. “The physical elements of the aircraft between the cyclic and flight control surfaces have to be removed for it to be piloted,” he adds.
Following its arrival in Yuma days ago, the linkages were removed –—thus “demanning” the aircraft — and electric actuators connected up for unmanned flight.
The initial flight was intended to test the vehicle management system’s flight control software which was previously only ground tested in Northrop’s Rancho Bernardo simulation facility in California.
Initial flight test objectives covered basic handling qualities and safety-of-flight assessments. “We want to demonstrate that we have not changed the handling qualities and that it can be flown safely and reliably, Davis says. “Over time we will develop a reliability database and understand what the nuances will be.”
The flight test plan will cover “a handful of flights” by year end, and “we will do limited unmanned aircraft systems demonstrations, but not using the external sling load. We will just be carrying cargo in the cabin,” he adds.
The Fire-X flight occurred too late to capture the interest of the U.S. Marine Corps, which recently issued contracts to unmanned rotorcraft competitors Boeing and Lockheed Martin/Kaman for demonstrations of their systems in Afghanistan. Boeing’s A160T Hummingbird and the Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max, will be used to provide small supply loads to forward-based Marines there.
John Garrison, Bell CEO, says that the first flight is a major step toward proving the capability of the Fire-X configuration, a requirement for possibly garnering a similar demonstration sponsored by the Pentagon.