The U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman [NOC] successfully flew the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter off the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109), marking the unmanned system’s first at-sea flight after more than a year of land-based testing.

The at-sea testing began Dec. 16 off the coast of Virginia, Northrop Grumman said in a Dec. 23 statement. The Fire Scout made 22 takeoffs and 22 precision landings while being controlled from the ship’s ground control station.

The Fire Scout MQ-8C. Photo by Northrop Grumman.
The Fire Scout MQ-8C. Photo by Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman announced Dec. 3 that it had delivered the first of 19 unmanned helos to the Navy for testing this winter (Defense Daily, Dec. 3).

“The MQ-8C Fire Scout’s flights from the USS Dunham represent a significant Navy milestone. This is the first sea-based flight of the MQ-8C and the first time an unmanned helicopter has operated from a destroyer,” Capt. Jeff Dodge, Fire Scout program manager at Naval Air Systems Command, said in the Northrop Grumman statement. “The extended capabilities will offer the Navy a dynamic, multipurpose unmanned helicopter with increased endurance, allowing for our ship commanders and pilots to have a longer on station presence.”

“These dynamic interface tests are an essential part in clearing the operational envelope of the system and are proving the system’s ability to operate off any air-capable ship,” George Vardoulakis, vice president for medium range tactical systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace System, said in the statement. “We are on track to validate all of the critical performance parameters of this Navy asset and ready the system for deployment and operational use.”

The Fire Scout program has had a busy few weeks. It announced last week that it would launch a competition in early 2015 for the radar system for the MQ-8C (Defense Daily, Dec. 17). The Navy program office wants something similar to the radar used for the smaller Fire Scout variant, the MQ-8B, and “relatively off the shelf,” but more powerful for the larger and higher-endurance MQ-8C variant.

Program officials also announced they had tested the MQ-8B on the USS Coronado (LCS-4), the first test using the unmanned helo on a trimaran Littoral Combat Ship (Defense Daily, Dec. 17). Testing has already taken place on the mono-hull variant. That same week, the Coast Guard announced it had tested the MQ-8B on a ship of its own (Defense Daily, Dec. 16). On Dec. 5, a team of Navy pilots and Coast Guard personnel flew the unmanned system from the National Security Cutter Bertholf off the coast of Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, Calif. The Coast Guard is still developing its plans to acquire and operate unmanned aerial systems.