The Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter on Nov. 20 wrapped up its operational assessment (OA), readying the program for a Milestone C decision in 2016.
During the assessment, the service tested the MQ-8C’s endurance, reliability and performance, including its ability to survey maritime and land targets, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) stated in a news release on Nov. 30. Its sensors and systems were tested at different altitudes and ranges during day and nighttime conditions. The OA also evaluated the integration of an improved ice detector system that alerts the crew to icy conditions, allowing them to lower the aircraft so that it can continue its mission.
The three weeks of OA tests took place at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, Calif., and consisted of 11 land-based flights totaling 83.4 hours, NAVAIR said.
Capt. Jeff Dodge, the Navy’s Fire Scout program manager, said the service was happy with the performance of the MQ-8C, which met or exceeded its goals for endurance and range during the OA.
“We have some minor improvements to make before we get to Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E), but we believe the system will meet the fleet’s requirements,” he told sister publication Defense Daily in a written statement. “In order to further increase performance, we are working to bring additional sensors and weapons on to the aircraft.”
The service in November closed out a request for proposals for one of those systems: a maritime search radar to boost the Fire Scout’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.
Once fielded, the Northrop Grumman [NOC]-manufactured unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will fly off the decks of Littoral Combat Ships and other vessels to conduct reconnaissance and provide precision targeting support for manned assets on the ground, sea and air.
Initial ship-based testing is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2017, although the Navy has not yet identified the ship that will host those tests, a NAVAIR spokeswoman said.
Leslie Smith, Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout program director, said in a company statement that “the completion of land-based OA is once again validation of the incredible performance the Fire Scout system is capable of.”
A smaller version of the Fire Scout, the MQ-8B, is already operating in the fleet. The “Bravo” variant currently is deployed with the Freedom-class LCS USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) in Southeast Asia, where the drone partners with manned MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.
The MQ-8C, which is based on the manned Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] 407 helicopter, will provide twice the endurance and has a 700-pound payload capability that is three times the size of the MQ-8B. The “Charlie” variant has a range of 150 nautical miles, and has logged 427 flights and more than 730 flight hours, NAVAIR said.