The Navy has begun work on the next version of Fire Scout, the MQ-8C, based on a larger airframe and intended to fly and remain on station longer for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions than the preceding unmanned helicopters.

The Navy awarded Northrop Grumman [NOC] a $262.3-million contract Monday for the development, manufacturing and testing of two of the drone aircraft, and for the production of six air vehicles. A second contract is expected to be issued this year for an additional six MQ-8Cs, company officials said.

The MQ-8C is based on the 407 airframe built by Textron [TXT] subsidiary Bell Helicopter, and will be capable of 15 hours of flight time, including eight on station–twice that offered by the smaller MQ-8Bs currently deployed on naval vessels and in Afghanistan for ISR missions.

Northrop Grumman and Bell internally funded the development of the new Fire Scout as a Fire-X demonstrator, which has been flying at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., since December 2008, Steve Berroth, Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout program manager, said yesterday. The MQ-8C will utilize the same avionics as its predecessor and will be capable of carrying a variety of payloads, Berroth said.

The first MQ-8C is scheduled to deploy with the Navy in 2014, Berroth said.

Northrop Grumman is also looking at the MQ-8C to meet a Marine Corps need for ferrying cargo, said Mike Fugua, director of business development for Northrop Grumman unmanned systems.

The Marines last year deployed K-MAX unmanned helicopters developed by Lockheed Martin [LMT] to Afghanistan for carrying cargo to remote areas of the country, and the system has been met with high marks. Using unmanned cargo helicopters reduces risks associated with moving supplies in ground convoys or manned aircraft.

While K-MAX was deployed to meet an urgent requirement, Northrop Grumman is confident it can offer the MQ-8C if the Navy and Marine Corps move to a program of record and hold a competition for the cargo capability.

“The MQ-8C we think will be a great multi-mission aircraft,” Fuqua said. “It’s got a cargo hook on it. It can carry a significant amount of cargo.”

Boeing’s [BA] A-160T Hummingbird would likely also be in the competition.