MESA, Ariz. — What U.S. military services want in an unmanned spy drone is the ability to loiter for hours at a time–perhaps two dozen–and find the “red jug,” a stand-in for all manner of threats to troops on the ground.

From 2011 to 2013, the Northrop Grumman

[NOC] MQ-8B Fire Scout performed ISR missions for special operations forces (SOF) out of Forward Operating Base Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, capturing several hundred hours of full-motion video surveillance per month.

In 2012, SOF relied on “hours and hours and hours” of Fire Scout reconnaissance to get a picture of the “pattern of life” in Afghan villages, Robert Ernst, the chief engineer for the Navy and Marine Corps Multi-Mission Tactical UAS Program Office (PMA-266) at Patuxent River, Md., told an audience at the Vertical Flight Society’s 6th Annual eVTOL Symposium here.

The persistent reconnaissance turned up a suspicious “red jug,” which “had something in it,” likely an Improvised Explosive Device, Ernst said.

Persistent reconnaissance and constant communications relay are themes of the Marine Corps’ Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System Experimental (MUX) program, which is searching for a high-altitude long-endurance drone that can launch from a ship, perform reconnaissance and relay communication to deployed ground forces for about $20 million per copy.

An MQ-8B Fire Scout in Afghanistan in 2011.

A program request for information last year describes a fully autonomous air vehicle that can take off from and land on helicopter-capable amphibious ships or an austere 150-by-150-foot landing zone. It should cruise at speeds of 200 to 300 knots with a full payload and stay on station at least eight to 12 hours at 350-nm mission radius. Unrefueled it should have a range of 350 to 700 nm from the ship.

At 75 nm, the vehicle should be able to loiter for 48 hours while providing ISR.

“We need to be able to talk to everybody all the time,” and the military can’t always depend on satellite communications (SATCOM), especially in areas in which enemies have effectively denied SATCOM, Ernst said.

A condition-based maintenance approach for MUX is also advisable to fix UAS systems as problems arise, rather than solely at scheduled check up times, he said, adding that “we need to have better diagnostics.”

For this, third party applications could help to avoid situations that could take drones out of service, such as the two days it took to download data from an MQ-8 to the USS Milwaukee, Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)-5, Ernst said.

After an acquisition decision planned for fiscal 2020, the service wants a land-based early operational capability within five years and a land-based initial operational capability two years later, with a sea-based initial operating capability to follow.

Likely MUX competitors include Bell‘s  [TXT] V-247 tiltrotor UAS, a Lockheed Martin [LMT]/Piasecki Aircraft Corp./Sierra Nevada Corp. team developing the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES), which is to feature twin tilting wing-mounted duct fans; Boeing [BA], which is developing a tail-sitting unmanned flying wing, the MUX-1; and Northrop Grumman, which is also developing a tail-sitting flying wing called the tactically exploited reconnaissance node, or Tern.

In terms of the MQ-8B and the newer MQ-8C Fire Scout, the air frame has been stalwart, but the sensor performance may point to a need for upgrades to its forward looking infrared (FLIR) system, Ernst said.

The MQ-8B is based on the Schweizer 333 helicopter, while the larger MQ-8C is based on the Bell 407.